Every few years or so, it seems that we have a piece of news telling us that the Basque national team, Euskaltel-Euskadi, is under threat of folding. However, this time, the threat seems more serious than it has been before. Today it was announced that the team is one of the five that are not in the top fifteen on the UCI’s sporting value points ranking. Assuming the top fifteen are ok with regards to the other UCI criteria (administrative, ethical and financial), Euskaltel will be fighting it out with the three French squads AG2R, Europcar and FDJ, and possibly whatever becomes of Geox-TMC for the remaining three WorldTour spots. It does, however, seem that Geox would need some sort of miracle to exist next year.
The downfall of Geox could turn out to be a saving grace for Euskaltel in terms of their WorldTour aspirations, as it looks far more likely now that they will retain their place at cycling’s top table in 2012. The prospects for the season after next would appear to be somewhat more dim. The chairman of Euskaltel, Jorge Antonio Ardanza, announced a few weeks ago that he would “see it difficult to sponsor the cycling team from 2012.” This news will no doubt have caused alarm bells to ring with cycling fans everywhere as the team, having just finished its eighteenth professional season (incredibly, in this sport), are incredibly hard to dislike. The resignation of Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano as general manager of the team was seemingly the catalyst for Ardanza’s announcement. Concerned with his loss, Ardanza said that he hoped the team would recover from it, and that it was “very important” they did so.
Of course, the prospect of the team losing their co-head sponsor, who have been there since 1998, has raised questions about possible replacements, and the future of the team at the top level of cycling. Fundación Euskadi will no doubt stay on as a sponsor, but their support alone won’t be enough to sustain the team, certainly not at WorldTour level. Recently, the very promsing time-trialist Jonathan Castroviejo and the talented Beñat Intxausti have both left the team for bigger contracts at Team Movistar. Without Euskaltel’s funding, the teams major stars – Igor Anton and Samuel Sánchez – would certainly leave. Only a few days ago, Sánchez said that he would like to join up with Alberto Contador should his current team withdraw from cycling. He did, however, say he hoped Euskaltel stay on as sponsor.
To pick out some possible future sponsors (purely speculatively), there are several internationally successful companies from the area, such as the energy giant Iberdrola and wind turbine company Gamesa. Petronor, the team’s original co-sponsor, could fit the bill, as could a bank such as Kutxa, Bilbao Bizkaia Kutxa or Ipar Kutxa. The only fully Basque-language newspaper, Berria might be another possibility.
Returning to the question of their WorldTour participation, it would seem likely that they will return for at least next season, depending on Euskaltel’s plans after that. There is the question, however, of whether the team are benefitting from participating in the UCI’s Premier League. We all know that forced participation is the name of the game, meaning we see the Basque climbers struggle through races in northern Europe and its cobbled roads (Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Eneco Tour). Long-haul races Tour Down Under, Tour of California and the Tour of Beijing (part of the UCI’s vision of globalisation in the sport) don’t seem to be cost-effective for the team either, as – aside from the travelling costs – they usually don’t seem to register much of a presence at them.
I doubt there are many cycling fans who would take any joy out of seeing this team disappear. Their mad fans, bright orange jerseys, the rider’s attacking instincts and the staunch Basque-only policy are all part of the furniture of professional cycling, and the sport would be poorer without them. Happily though, I cannot envisage a situation in which the Basque squad doesn’t exist. It would be a rather large surprise if Fundación Euskadi let the team dissolve, though the question of finding a co-sponsor in the event of Euskaltel pulling out is somewhat less certain.
Also less than certain is at which level the team would operate at. Regarding the WorldTour, the way the team is run – taking on only Basque riders, or riders that have progressed through the youth system – means that there will likely never be a good reason for Euskaltel to participate in any of the cobbled races. The strain placed on finances by travelling to races Asia and America, where their sponsors – a Basque telephone company, and the regional government – derive no benefit from being seen, and where the riders do not feature in the results too often, is probably too great to justify for the return.
It would not be surprising to see them drop down to Professional Continental status at some point in the near future. At that level, they would certainly be able to obtain invites to their favoured races in Spain (including their home race), and also the Tour de France, where they have been fixtures for some years now. It is another question whether the big stars would stay at the team and refuse larger wages elsewhere.
While the future is far from certain, I remain positive about the future of one of my favourite teams, and hope we will see the carrots in the peloton for some years yet. Gora Euskadi!