In the lead-up to the 2016 season Orica-GreenEdge revealed it had signed several experienced riders in a bid to bolster the team’s climbing stocks. Among the new recruits was Basque rider Amets Txurruka, formerly of Caja Rural and, before that, Euskaltel-Euskadi.
Txurruka doesn’t just bring a wealth of experience to the Australian-registered WorldTour team, he brings an aggressive mindset and a propensity for getting up the road. Daniel Ostanek caught up with the 33-year-old in the lead up to the latter’s home race: the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
“I like to try to attack in every race I participate. It is my way of racing.” These words shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that’s watched Amets Txurruka race.
Since 2006, the year he turned professional with Barloworld, the Basque rider has become known for his kamikaze style of riding. He is something of a patron saint of the hopeless breakaway, the man who you can count on to liven up a race.
The majority of his career has been spent in his native País Vasco, with six years spent in the famous orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi, followed by four with Pamplona-based Caja Rural. He’s racing in his native Basque Country at the moment, taking part in his sixth Vuelta al País Vasco.
He’s not riding for a home-based squad though, for the first time in his career. Instead, 2016 marks the start of a new chapter for Txurruka. Now 33-years-old, he has moved to Australian team Orica-GreenEdge.
It’s a big change for a rider who had ridden exclusively for Spanish teams for a decade. So why the move?
“It was really a once in a lifetime chance. It wasn’t a surprise though, because every year I have talked to other teams. I’ve always had options,” he says.
“It’s a team with incredible unity and a great atmosphere, and sharing with people from other cultures has always attracted me, ever since I studied on an Erasmus scholarship in Italy [he studied physical education at the University of the Basque Country – ed]. I couldn’t miss this chance.”
The wheels were set in motion midway through last season, before Txurruka fell and cracked a rib at the Circuito do Getxo, an injury which compromised the latter part of his season.
“I had another offer,” he says. “But one day [GreenEdge DS] Neil Stephens called me unexpectedly and explained their project to me. It gave me a lot of trust so I didn’t hesitate.”
Switching teams sees Txurruka take on a slight role change, with more emphasis on riding in service of others than the freer role he had at Caja Rural. It’s something he’s used to though, thanks to his time spent working for the GC hopes of Samuel Sánchez and Igor Antón at Euskaltel.
“On many occasions with Euskaltel we raced with one leader and with GC in mind,” he remembers. “It often undermined the chances to try for wins, but Caja Rural had more opportunities in that regard.”
“At GreenEdge they asked me to continue as I have been doing, maintaining my [attacking] nature as well as provide that support,” says Txurruka. “The climbers haven’t had much [support], and it will be part of my job to support [Esteban] Chaves and the Yates twins [Adam and Simon].”
The 23-year-old twins rode the Tour de France together for the first time last year, and already have a slew of impressive results under their belt. Simon was fifth at País Vasco and the Critérium du Dauphiné last year, while Adam has won the Tour of Turkey and Clásica San Sebastián.
Meanwhile Chaves, 26, had a breakthrough season in 2015, winning two tough uphill stages at the Vuelta a España and finishing fifth overall.
Helping younger riders develop is something Txurruka had become accustomed to during his time at Caja Rural, with talents such as Hugh Carthy, Carlos Barbero and Omar Fraile (now at Dimension Data) making names for themselves in recent seasons.
Txurruka’s last season with the ProContinental squad was one of the best of his career, with highlights including a second-place overall at the Vuelta a Asturias (a race he won in 2013) and a stage win at the Tour of Norway, only the second of his career.
“It was a good year, especially considering my injuries,” he says. “There were two wins – one at the mountains classification at the Tour des Fjords – but I also got a lot of good placings [fourth at the Tour de Beauce and Vuelta a Madrid – ed]. Later on my injuries at Getxo meant I couldn’t go well at the Vuelta.”
Injuries, like attacks, are a recurring theme in Txurruka’s career. Last year, at the early season Etoile des Bessèges, he broke his collarbone for the sixth time, and he has crashed out of the Tour de France three times with a collarbone fracture.
Txurruka has a complicated history with that race. Back in 2007, his first time at Le Grand Boucle, he finished third in the youth classification and wore the white jersey on the podium as Alberto Contador and Juan Mauricio Soler donned the yellow and polka-dot jerseys respectively. He also won the combativity prize, a sign of what was to come.
He completed the race in 2008, finishing 51st, but left after a crash in 2009. Then came the broken collarbones – in 2010, 2011 and 2012. He hasn’t been back since, and 2012 would also turn out to be his final year at the long-running Basque squad, Euskaltel.
The de-facto national team would itself only last one more season, breaking with its core value of signing local-born riders as it struggled to amass points in a bid to hang onto a WorldTour place. Txurruka strongly disapproved of the move, and said as much at the time.
“I joined because I felt that this team was different, that it was a team for the Basque Country, a bit like Athletic [Bilbao, the football team],” he said back in 2012. “It’s always been like that, but it seems that this is ending.
“It is going to be difficult to accept the fact that a lot of good riders from the Basque Country who have been part of this project will be sidelined from it while the team is filled up with foreigners.”
He still calls the move “a shame”, calling his old team “very special” and noting the sheer number of Basque riders who were afforded opportunities thanks to the team.
Throughout Txurruka’s career he has been surrounded by Basques – from his amateur years with Orbea-Olarra and Debabarrena (teams which developed the likes of Igor Antón, Samuel Sánchez and Ion Izagirre too), to Barloworld (where teammates included Igor Astarloa and Pedro Arreitunandia), and recently Euskaltel and Caja Rural.
It says something about the pervading influence of the Basque Country throughout the cycling world that he has a Basque pal at Orica-GreenEdge – bus driver Garikoitz Atxa.
Nevertheless cycling in the region has certainly seen brighter days, and this sense of sadness extends to the state of cycling in Spain. It’s a country which is historically a cycling superpower but now boasts seemingly few young riders, if any, capable of ascending to the heights of Contador or Valverde.
“The level has fallen very sharply in Spain – at an organisational level, from the professionals downwards,” he says. “Consequently there are fewer riders too. I hope things can improve again, even gradually.”
Txurruka has been back racing in Spain for the past few weeks, riding late March’s Volta a Catalunya before taking the trip back to the Basque Country for the GP Miguel Indurain. The races have been a disappointing experience for the Australian team though, with 48th for Chaves their highest GC finish in Catalunya, followed up by missing the vital break at the GP Miguel Indurain.
The Yates brothers lead the team at the Vuelta al País Vasco (or Euskal Herriko Itzulia as the natives call it), looking to challenge for the overall. Txurruka’s hometown of Etxebarria was the start point for the first stage, and he’ll be motivated to help the team get a result at his home race. Odds are we’ll see him in the break at some point.
So what is it like to race in the breakaway so much?
“It’s very different. In the peloton it’s easy to conserve energy and keep safe but you have to be much stronger to win at the end,” he says. “In the break there is more collaboration, more options.”
“Winning is important but showing the sponsor is important too,” he says. “There are many times where I have made every effort just to get away and ride in the break, even when there isn’t a chance to win.”
It’s this style of riding that had won Txurruka so many fans, the optimism of the man who attacks when even he knows he won’t be crossing the line first.
There will be more optimism, more attacks and just maybe, more wins for Txurruka this season. In any case, keep a close eye on the breakaways for an Orica-GreenEdge jersey – it just might be Amets Txurruka, the man who never gives up.