Basque national team, Euskaltel – Euskadi were on the brink of extension last week until an unlikely saviour in the form of an F1 driver invested 6 million Euros into the team. Neil Mannix reports on the large scale investment and the recent financial controversies to rock the cycling world.
In a brief message on his personal website earlier this month, F1 hero Fernando Alonso announced that he was putting six million Euros of his own money into doomed Spanish cycling team Euskaltel-Euskadi. It was an announcement that truly shocked a cycling world still reeling from the fallout from Lance Armstrong’s doping confession in January. And for the renowned Euskaltel-Euskad team, it handed them a lifeline – just when they were literally on the brink of extinction.
Only last week, Jesus Aizkorbe, the team’s beleaguered press officer, was standing at the top of the stairs of his orange team bus. The 2013 edition of the Vuelta a Espana was to be the team’s final Grand Tour. Aizkorbe was handing out team posters to a posse of reporters. ‘There’s a lot more interest here than there used to be a few years back’ said the Spaniard, showing the strain of a man caught up with a team in crisis, he thanked the journalists for their interest and told them, sadly ‘It’s a pity we’re quitting now.’
Euskaltel – Euskadi, the national pro cycling team of the Basque country has been in existence since 1994 and has recently announced they are to wind down their operation at the end of the current season. Their main sponsor Euskaltel, a Basque telecommunications company, announced that they were no longer able to support the team after co-sponsors and bike manufacturers, Orbea, said they are no longer willing to assist the Basque outfit financially. The timing of Alonso’s stunning revelation saved the careers and livelihood of all the riders and backroom staff at Euskaltel – Euskadi.
The statement was however delivered during a miserable time for Spanish cycling. Two years ago Alberto Contador was banned for doping. His return last year saw him capture the Vuelta a Espana crown in remarkable fashion but since then his comeback has been very disappointing. He finished 5th in the Tour de France and looked sluggish. He was completely outmatched in the high mountains by Britain’s Chris Froome. Contador was the greatest Grand Tour rider of his generation but that time seems well and truly over. Spain is now left with just one representative on the UCI World Tour Team circuit, Movistar. Their main rider, Alejandro Valverde, is 33 years old and finished 8th in this year’s Tour de France, over 15 minutes in arrears of overall winner, Christopher Froome. The signs are not good for Spanish cycling.
Rewind to 2011 and Euskaltel – Euskadi were enjoying a phenomenal season. Their star rider and former Olympic Gold medallist, Samuel Sanchez, won a wonderful stage in the Tour de France and was on his way to winning the polka dot jersey as the ‘King of the Mountains’ and finishing fifth overall. Their main sponsors had just signed a 6 year extension and they looked like one of the most financially secure teams in pro cycling.
The team also had perhaps the most fervent following in pro cycling. Euskaltel’s home is located in the disputed lands of North Eastern Spain, known as the Basque region. The locals are fiercely passionate about cycling and when the Tour or the Vuelta passes through their terrain the roads are transformed into a sea of orange, the colours of the hugely popular cycling team. Flags and t-shirts are handed out freely by the team cars in an effort to inspire and encourage their riders who falter on the very steep climbs around the area. In 2011 when Sanchez climbed his way up to the snow capped peaks of the Luz Ardiben, he was swarmed by orange clad fans. They raced alongside their adopted brother Sanchez and shouted ‘allez, allez’, to encourage him in climbing another kilometre and onto certain victory.
Theirs was the team that had everything: fanatical support and financial security. So how did it crumble so quickly?
Cycling used to be a glorious sport, where ardent fans camped out for two weeks atop mountains in the hope of catching a glimpse of their heroes navigate the narrow slopes used in the Tour de France and other Grand Tours. Then Lance Armstrong gave that interview to Oprah and the extent of his cheating crippled cycling and called into question the merits of our sport.
The repercussions for his admission of large scale, and sophisticated doping have been widespread. In the past year two teams have seen their funding cut to zero. Nissan, who sponsored Armstrong’s Radioshack-Trek team, announced they were to terminate their contract with the team at the end of the 2013 season. They were quoted in the Luxembourg newspaper, Le Quotidien, as saying that the recent controversies involving Armstrong led them to end their long term sponsorship of the team and the sport. The Dutch multinational banking company, Rabobank, also revoked its sponsorship of UCI team, Rabobank, in October of 2012. The banking giant was quoted in the Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, as saying it was ending its 16 year sponsorship with the team at the end of the 2013 season.
President of the UCI during all these controversies was Pat McQuaid, a former Irish national champion. He had relative success as a cyclist and after retiring, slowly made his name in administration and promotion of cycling. He became the president of the UCI in 2006, a hugely powerful position. However, his realm as president has been blighted with constant allegations he was a knowing participant in the elaborate doping programme promoted and masterminded by Lance Armstrong. Floyd Landis, a former teammate of Armstrong and convicted doper, made accusations that Armstrong had paid off the UCI over a positive doping test. The UCI later admitted receiving cheques worth in excess of $120,000 in 2002 and 2005 from Armstrong but insisted the money was used to test juniors and to pay for equipment used in testing blood samples.
McQuaid denied the allegations in a 2011 profile published in the Telegraph. He also failed to act on a 2007 positive test of disgraced Danish cyclist, Michael Rassmussen. His team, Rabobank, pulled him from the race before the Tour’s conclusion in Paris. McQuaid was accused by German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, in 2007 of being soft on doping and only giving minor fines to two cyclists who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. He is currently struggling to convince enough members of the UCI to back him for another term as president. Both Ireland and Switzerland, where the UCI is based, have refused to support the 63 year olds re-election bid.
Recent zero tolerance stances toward drugs by Team Sky and Garmin-Sharp have done little to quell the suspicions that cycling is still a dirty sport. Still tainted by the soiled hand Lance dealt the cycling world when he welcomed Oprah Winfrey into his hometown of Texas last January.
All seemed bleak in cycling until such an unlikely hero entered the tale. Fernando Alonso hails from the same small town of Oviedo as Sammy Sanchez and is equally as talented in his sport of F1 motor racing. He has been a passionate cycling fan for many years and incorporates cycling into his own rigours training routine. He initially wanted to build a team around Alberto Contador, but he has since signed an extension with his current team, Saxo- Tinkoff, when he returned to competitive cycling last year. The F1 driver promised to run a clean team and his statement went on to say that ‘Enthusiasm, seriousness, sacrifice, evolution and transparency are the words on which this team will build its foundations’.
‘This news is way better than any victory’ said team leader and 2008 Olympic gold medallist Samuel Sanchez at this year’s Vuelta a Espana. ‘Now, at least, we can get on with the Vuelta without being worried about our jobs for next year.’