“This region needs a new project that excites people. Murias has taken the plunge and it’s the saviour of Basque cycling,” proclaimed ex-Banesto rider Jon Odriozola last October.
He was speaking at the presentation of his new team, Murias Taldea. Starting out at UCI Continental level, they will be the first fully Basque outfit to emerge since the demise of Euskaltel-Euskadi two years ago.
The defunct team's riders, scattered to the four winds, are now on a variety of teams around Europe. Last week we saw one of them, Mikel Landa (Team Sky), ride to a stage victory in the Vuelta al País Vasco (or Euskal Herriko Itzulia, as the locals call it), giving the crowd a chance to celebrate the success of one of their own.
The death of the orange-clad team was followed last year by Continental feeder team Euskadi ceasing professional operations and dropping down to amateur level.
In the meantime, Spanish squads Movistar and Caja Rural-Seguros RCA are based in Pamplona, and both teams feature several Basque riders, but it’s not the same. Euskaltel, and the structure put in place by the Fundacion Euskadi, fostered a generation of Basque talent which went on to challenge for Grand Tours and win races like the Dauphiné Libéré, Tour de Suisse, and even Olympic gold.
So while there’s renewed hope for cycling in the region, there’s one small problem – they don’t wear orange. “I hope people will identify with the green as they did with Euskaltel’s colours,” team manager Odriozola says.
A good domestique is his day rather than a superstar, the man from Gipuzkoa won the now-defunct Subida a Urkiola classic and also helped Abraham Olano win the Vuelta a España in 1998 while finishing 12th himself.
“I’ve had the idea to create a cycling project for a long time,” he says. “It was difficult to find a sponsor, so I thank Murias [a construction company] for giving me the opportunity to make it a reality.” (Local club Arratiako Ziklista Elkartea has also provided support.)
“We only ask for one thing – a little patience.”
Team leader Egoitz Garcia at Klasika Primavera. pic: Ibon Maguregi
It will certainly take time for the team to grow. Team leader Egoitz Garcia was previously a domestique at Cofidis, and at 29-years-old he’s the veteran of the team. “At Cofidis I had some races where the weight was on my shoulders and that will help me here, as I’ll have to take on the responsibility of leader most days,” he says.
“Coming here it’s exciting to see the young people with a strong desire to ride as professionals. With them it feels that I can also start from scratch. My goal is to grow with them.”
With every other rider in the team 25 or younger, there is certainly plenty of potential for growth. Garikoitz Bravo (25) is another who can pass on his experience to the youngsters. After three years at Caja Rural, he spent 2013 with Euskaltel, finishing tenth in the Tour of Beijing.
Joining from Euskadi are Beñat Txoperena (23), Aritz Bagües (25) and Haritz Orbe (23), while a few others have experience at Continental level. Many of the team’s 12 riders have joined as neo-pros.
Imanol Estevez is one of those men. He has been tipped by Odriozola as one of the brightest talents in the squad, but right now he’s still adjusting to life as a professional.
There’s ample opportunity to gain experience, too. As you would expect, there’s a focus on the Iberian Peninsula, but the team will also race in France and Belgium.
The team are currently competing at the Vuelta a Castilla y León, with the Tour du Finistère and the Tro-Bro Lèon coming up at the weekend. “We have an excellent calendar for our first year. To make it perfect we only need Itzulia, but that is a dream,” says Odriozola.
Odriozola proffers advice at Challange Mallorca. pic: Murias Taldea
In terms of results, 22-year-old Jon Insausti’s ride in the classic Cholet-Pays Loire has been the high point. He sprinted from a small group to take second place, with the veteran Pierrick Fedrigo (Bretagne-Séché Environnement) already having secured the win.
But currently it’s about development more than results, with both Odriozola and Garcia talking of how vital it is for the Basque Country to have a professional team.
“We can help riders step up, now that we are the only Continental project in our region,” says Odriozola. His team leader strikes a similar note: “I wouldn’t want youngsters to lose the dream [of turning professional] because there was no team to join.”
The focus is on youth now, but what about the future? “It will take a lot of patience and hard work, but we have ambitions to reach the level of Euskaltel one day.”