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Euskaltel-Euskadi will close at the end of the 2013 season, leaving Spain with just two top-level professional teams as a worsening economic crisis ravages cycling south of the Pyrénées.
The Basque cycling team has been unable to secure funding for the coming season, and will end a decades-long tradition of supporting the sport in Spain’s Basque Country.
“Today is a sad day for Euskaltel, for the team, for current sponsors, for the fans, and for everyone who has supported this project,” according to a team statement on Tuesday. “We regret that no business or entity had decided to support this team, a reference in elite cycling.”
The decision will leave dozens of riders and staff scrambling to find new jobs. Top riders such as Samuel Sánchez, Igor Anton, and Mikel Nieve should not find it too hard to secure new contracts. Others, however, seem fated to join the growing legion of unemployed bike racers in Spain.
The news is a blow to Spanish cycling, which once boasted nearly a dozen of top-level pro teams. Euskaltel’s exit leaves only Movistar in the UCI WorldTour and Caja Rural at the Pro Continental level.
Officials promised the team would conclude its 2013 racing season in an “orderly” manner, with a special focus on its final grand tour at the Vuelta a España, which begins Saturday in Galicia.
The Basque-based team has struggled to keep pace with the economic demands of elite cycling over the past few seasons.
Already in 2011 and 2012, the team struggled to have the budget to secure a place among the WorldTour league. Last year, it had the smallest budget of any of the top teams, estimated around $7 million per year.
This year, the team abandoned its long-running tradition of having only Basque-linked riders on its roster, bringing on nine non-Basque riders who carried valued UCI points in a move that helped it secure a ProTeam license for this season.
Financial troubles turned for the worse this summer when public institutions in the Basque Country said they would be unable to fund nearly half of the team’s budget beyond the end of this season, estimated to be at 4 million euros per season.
Euskaltel, a small telecommunications company based in Bilbao that’s backed the team since 1997, said it would be unable to carry the entire estimated budget of 9 million euros per season.
Officials were scrambling to find new sponsors, but riders were already given the green light in late July to look for new teams.
Doping scandals involving Euskaltel riders, such as Mikel Astarloza and newcomer Alexander Serebryakov, didn’t help.
By Tuesday, officials confirmed the inevitable, and said the team would fold by season’s end.
“Euskaltel-Euskadi will not continue next season,” said a team statement. “The introduction of a second sponsor, essential to guarantee the sustainability of the team, has not come to pass, making it unfeasible for the team to continue from the start of next season, though it will complete its 2013 calendar.”
The team was founded in 1994 with support of local and regional Basque institutions to promote cycling in one of the European hotbeds.
Nearly all Spanish pros raced as amateurs in Spain’s Basque Country, a hilly, verdant region straddling the Spanish-French border laced with narrow, winding roads ideal for training and racing.
Euskaltel came on as title sponsor in 1997, which linked the team to its trademark orange colors, and opened the door to more exposure beyond the Pyrénées.
The team won a Tour de France stage with legendary Basque climber Roberto Laiseka in the 2001 edition, with Laiseka riding through a sea of flag-waving Basque fans in the Pyrénées.
The squad also enjoyed GC success in the Tour, with the likes of Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia punching into the top-10.
Sánchez won the Olympic road race at the 2008 Beijing Games, but things seemed to start sliding backwards from that high-water point.
Euskaltel, which always struggled with one of the smallest budgets in the elite peloton, struggled to keep pace with the new, deep-pocketed “super teams” such as Sky, Astana, and BMC Racing.
While those teams boasted budgets north of $15 million per year, Euskaltel scraped by on less than half that. Basque riders, for the most part, remained loyal to the team, often turning down big-money contracts from other squads to stay in the distinctive orange jersey.
Spanish crisis worsens
Euskaltel’s exit leaves Spanish cycling on life-support.
Just a few years ago, Spain boasted four WorldTour-level teams, with Liberty Seguros, Caisse d’Epargne, Saunier Duval, and Euskaltel.
Liberty Seguros went down with the Operación Puerto doping scandal, with the team morphing into the Astana organization, taking the outfit to Kazakhstan.
Saunier Duval lost its sponsorship with Geox at the end of the 2011 season, leaving only Movistar (former Caisse d’Epargne, Illes Balears, and Banesto) and Euskaltel in the top ranks.
Spain also used to boast a half-dozen Pro Continental teams, but those slowly started to fade away as well, with Andalucia-CajaSur collapsing at the end of last season.
Now only Caja Rural, which will race the Vuelta with David Arroyo as its captain, remains among the Pro Continental level in Spain.
Despite having individual success, with such riders as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Spanish cycling is on the ropes.
There are barely 50 top-level pros now active in Spain, a number that has been reduced by more than half over the past few seasons as Spain’s economic crisis, with 25 percent unemployment coupled with an extreme austerity program, continues to the rip the guts out of funding.
An endless string of doping scandals, capped by the still-ongoing Operación Puerto and the clenbuterol case involving Contador, certainly haven’t helped.
Much of the support for Spanish cycling comes from public institutions, which underwrite the budgets for both teams and regional races.
Spain also once boasted one of the busiest racing calendars in Europe, with a string of weeklong races stretching from February to June.
With regional governments facing dramatic cutbacks in public spending for education, health care, infrastructure, and pensions, it’s difficult for politicians to rationalize huge budget expenditures for cycling events.
Races such as the Vuelta a Murcia, which used to be held over five days, has been reduced to one day. Other races, such as tours in Valencia, Catalunya, Madrid, and Aragon, have disappeared completely.
Spain’s top two stage races behind the Vuelta a España — the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) and the Volta a Catalunya — are both on the ropes. The Catalunya tour, which is the oldest in Spain, will likely not be held next year unless private backers can be found to sponsor the race’s expenditures.
The Vuelta, which begins Saturday in Galicia, counts on the support of communications giant ASO, which owns controlling interest of the Vuelta as well as the Tour de France and other marquee cycling properties.
The organizers for the 2014 road world cycling championships, set for Ponferrada in northwest Spain, are also facing difficulty finding private companies to step up to cover an estimated budget of 12 million euros.