Monday, July 13, 2009

Euskaltel Euskadi and The Pyrenees

The Daily Peloton page has published an article about how Euskaltel Euskadi fared at the Pyrenees this year, here you have it:

Three Days in the Pyrenees

Christopher Fauske

Euskaltel-Euskadi finally has something to shout about in its back yard.

Le Tour de France comes through every year, and every year—whether the cols are early or late in the race—there is talk of how this is the stamping ground of Euskaltel-Euskadi, of how hundreds of thousands decked out in bright orange, waving the flag of the Basque country, and getting in the faces of riders will astonish the millions watching on TV, many of them clueless about the root cause of the fervor.

And each year when it is over, commentators and cynics alike are left wondering why, how, once again, the team from the Basque country didn’t really figure in the races.

For the 2009 version of the race, the team talked down expectations before the start. Amets Txurruka had reflected that “personally, I would prefer for the Pyrenees to come towards the end, because when other people are fresh it’s more difficult for me to stand out. At any rate, these are special stages for us and we will try to put on a good show for our fans.”

The first week’s racing played out to include some utterly unexpected time losses for potential GC leaders and highlighted the apparent dominance of Astana, with only Columbia-HTC and Garmin-Slipstream at first offering a challenge. But there were also some individual stage wins that no one saw coming and races-within-races developed. Euskaltel-Euskadi, though, was suffering, most noticeably during the TTT through Barcelona when team captain Mikel Astarloza fell twice. He later expressed gratitude to the team for limiting his loss to mere “minutes.” Importantly, though, the team responded to Astarloza’s falls that day as a team, and it was that attitude that would influence its approach in the Pyrenees.

Day one in the Pyrenees (stage 7) saw Egoi Martinez join a nine-man breakaway that stayed away to the end, ultimately crossing the line alone in fifth place, 45 seconds back. The day’s outing eased him up to fourth place in the King of the Mountains competition. But no one seemed to notice particularly, and stage 8 saw the squad send Astarloza on to the attack from the start. While stage 7 was the only mountain-top finish in the Pyrenees, there were enough climbing challenges on stage 8 for the breakaway to be whittled down as the day wore on, and after the Col d'Agnes Astarloza was one of only four riders to settle into the task of staying away for the final 40KM. He was rewarded with a third place finish, gaining 1’ 54” on the race leaders.

Despite the third place finish, frustration showed in his remarks that “Honestly, I don’t know what else can we do to achieve a stage victory.” Still, he reflected, “I have taken some time [out of the GC leaders]. We went for the victory and those two minutes are a little reward for so much work."

Stage 9 revealed that Euskaltel-Euskadi was not just launching riders each day in hopes of a stage win in the local mountains, a strategy that would most likely have seen Igor Antón get the nod for the final stage. Instead, Martinez attacked once more, this time supported by Txurruka. On the Col d’Aspin, the two of them joined the remains of an earlier escape and by the Col du Tourmalet they had firmly established themselves. Martinez, who had quietly picked up 11 KOM points on stage 8, snagged 8 more points on the Col d’Aspin and 16 on Col du Tourmalet before re-joining the chasing peloton, mission accomplished, and ending the day in the Polka Dot Jersey.

It was, he said later, something of importance to the team, and to him personally: “ [After my fifth place one stage 7] I said we are a team that has trouble winning. Yesterday, Mikel Astarloza was very strong but could not finish his great work.”

“Last night the team agreed we had to do everything possible to win the Polka Dot jersey and that we had a lot of work to do.” This was the team’s focus, and “Amets Txurruka has done an incredible job,” Martinez offered.

Toward the end of the day, after the racing was over and the circus was preparing to move on, Martinez made his way to the team bus, where he was met by team president Miguel Madariaga, who embraced his rider while reportedly close to tears. “This is the first time in the history of our team we have this jersey that is so beloved by Basque fans," Madariaga told the media who remained.

DS Igor González de Galdeano then announced the team’s intentions: “We will see if we can keep it!" Which might just change the strategy for the Alps, but before next weekend come stages of various complexion, all with a few mountain points on offer here and there, and, as Thor Hushovd neatly demonstrated on stage eight, those small points can matter.

And as George Hincapie in turn showed, one way to protect a points jersey for a teammate, or, at least, to limit the damage, is to go out and grab them for yourself. It may be that prior to the Alps, Martinez is protected not just by his own accomplishments but by his teammates attacking to protect the points on offer. And all the while Astarloza will wait for the Alps, which, as he reminds people, “have treated me very well, and in the third week [of the Tour] endurance runners like me should benefit.”

For now, though, the image that is captured in Basque eyes is that of one of their own, Egoi Martinez, on the podium in red and white. It’s not bright orange, but no one minds.

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