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Classic jerseys: No.6 Euskaltel

In-depth
3 Jan 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 79 of Cyclist magazine

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird 

The seed that would eventually flourish into one of the most popular professional teams of the 1990s and 2000s was sown in June 1993 when the Euskadi Cycling Foundation was formed for the ‘promotion, development, dissemination and development of Basque cycling sport’.

The foundation supported promising local riders using funding from Basque institutions and the public.

At its very centre was a pro cycling team built solely from riders who had been born in the Basque Country or whose formative cycling years had been spent in the region.

The team made its debut at the start of the 1994 season under the Euskadi-Petronor name, with a squad of 15 riders.  

Wearing white jerseys with green and red flashes to echo the colours of the Basque flag (the famous orange would come later), appropriately enough the team’s first win came at the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco in early April courtesy of Agustín Sagasti.

Further wins were scarce from then on, though, with a four-month wait for a second journey to the top step of the podium, when two-time national champion Juan Carlos González Salvador won a stage in the Vuelta a Castilla y León. 

However, Euskadi was an outfit with different ambitions to other teams, and it wasn’t necessarily all about winning.

But the focus on nurturing specifically Basque talent came at a cost, and the team faced closure on more than one occasion, until in 1998 the telecoms company Euskaltel signed up as a title sponsor, bringing much needed financial stability to the table.

The following season their investment began to reap rewards.

Laiseka the legend

Roberto Laiseka had turned pro in 1994, joining Euskadi for their first season and remaining with them throughout his entire career.

Born in the Basque town of Guernica, in 1999 he broke out of the pack to claim what was at the time the team’s most important win.

Stage 18 of the 1999 Vuelta a España ended with a 12km ascent to Alto de Abantos. On the final climb the peloton was cut to ribbons with the favourites all attacking race leader Jan Ullrich.

Laiseka launched an attack with around 7km to go and on narrow roads soared skywards to win by 17 seconds.

As he approached the line he straightened his white and green jersey and raised his arms aloft. The team had its first win at a Grand Tour. The Spanish daily ABC described it as a ‘beautiful triumph’.

Euskaltel-Euskadi truly arrived on the global stage two years later when it secured its first invitation to the Tour de France.

The 2001 edition took in three stages amid the peaks of the Pyrenees, the last of which brought the peloton to a summit finish at the Luz Ardiden ski station via the Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet.

It was a brute of a stage and thousands of Basque fans were on the mountainsides to watch their team perform. And perform they did.

Again the fans had Laiseka to thank. On Stage 11 to Ax-les-Thermes, the first Pyrenean stage, he finished runner-up by just 13 seconds, and the win he and the Basque Country craved finally arrived two days later.

Clad in the bright orange kit that would become synonymous with the team, Laiseka attacked out of the group of GC leaders on the early slopes of Luz Ardiden and caught the earlier breakaway.

Fuelled by the cheers and flags of his fellow Basques, Laiseka scaled Luz Ardiden alone. As he approached the finish line he blew kisses to the fans who had poured over the border to watch him.

‘My ears were ringing because of the shrill screaming,’ he said afterwards. ‘This is a unique moment. The biggest win of my life.’

Laiseka’s win took the team to a new level. They had won a stage of the world’s most important bike race in their own backyard and were now considered among the top teams in the sport, an incredible achievement given their philosophy.

Two years later their new star, Iban Mayo, took second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, won the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and then claimed a famous stage win at the Tour on a stage that went over the Col du Galibier on its way to the cathedral of cycling that is Alpe d’Huez. That would remain arguably Euskaltel-Euskadi’s best season.

In 2012 the team changed its philosophy. With a place on the WorldTour dependent on UCI rankings, gaining ranking points was deemed a priority and so, to the dismay of some, the team looked beyond the Basque Country to recruit riders who would bring all-important points with them.

Samuel Sánchez, who won the Tour’s polka-dot jersey for the team in 2011 – winning on Luz Ardiden 10 years after Laiseka – welcomed the change, saying it was ‘evolve or die’.

Others felt the team was losing the one thing that made them special. The plan ensured the team secured a WorldTour place for 2013 but its identity had irrevocably changed.

As it turned out, the 2013 season would be the outfit’s last. Its financial position had once again become perilous and with the economic crisis in Spain worsening, Euskaltel decided it couldn’t maintain its level of funding.

A search for a new title sponsor ultimately failed and so the professional team folded. ‘We’re leaving with the feeling of a job well done,’ said sports director Álvaro González de Galdeano.

The Euskadi Cycling Foundation continued, however, and under the presidency of Movistar’s Mikel Landa it formed a new UCI Continental professional partnership this year.

The stated goal of Team Fundación Euskadi is to soon be back competing in the world’s greatest races.

And who knows, maybe we’ll see the bright orange team kit return too.