The savvy Spaniard: A chat with rising star Ion Izagirre

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Last fall, a bit of controversy sprung up in the world of professional cycling — the Lampre-Merida team had found a saviour in China, and with the UCI World Tour set to be limited to 17 teams in 2017, the hunt for World Tour points was on.

Two weeks after this issue came to the public light, a piece of news surprised everyone: Ion Izagirre broke his contract with Movistar to join Bahrain-Merida. Despite having crafted a decent roster with Vincenzo Nibali as its marquee signing, the Middle Eastern squad didn’t have enough points on its tally to secure a spot on the World Tour – so they decided to buy the points, from Movistar.

(The team also “hired” Joaquim Rodriguez, in October, though the Spaniard announced in December — after WorldTour points had been allotted, that he would not, in fact, be racing in 2017.)

A proven winner, Izagirre, 28, was known, but unknown. The rider from Ormaiztegi, located in the heart of Spain’s Basque Country between Bilbao and San Sebastian, turned pro in 2010 with the Continental team Orbea-Oreka SDA, making the move to WorldTour in 2011 with Euskaltel-Euskadi. He took his first professional win in 2012, winning the individual time trial at the Vuelta a Asturias, before taking a stage win at his Grand Tour début, the Giro d’Italia.

A strong time trialist who can climb, Izagirre won the overall at the 2015 Tour of Poland, and took his first Tour de France stage victory last year, beating out Jarlinson Pantano and Vincenzo Nibali on the final mountain stage into Morzine. Still, his name wasn’t one expected to shake up the transfer market, usually rich when it comes to rumours and poor when it comes to money. It worked the other way for him, though.

We sat down with Izagirre in a comfortable hotel room in Archena on the eve of the Vuelta a Murcia to explore the rider, and the circumstances that brought him to the new Bahrain Merida team, after several days speaking with former teammates and trainers who revealed a bit about this unknown character.

Izagirre demonstrated superior bike handling down the slick descent of the Col du Joux Plane to take the Stage 20 victory ahead of Pantano at the 2016 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos

A man who knows how to get the most out of himself

The first word that comes up when asking around about Izagirre’s personality is “savvy.” He’s a clever rider and demonstrates a level of canniness and race-craft at every opportunity. He is famous within the peloton for how well he positions himself in the bunch, holding that sweet spot against every rival despite his relatively slight build — 172cm (5-foot-7) and 63.2kg (139 pounds).

Above all, Izagirre is a rider who knows himself, best illustrated by his performances against the clock. A former coach of his told us he is great at pacing himself, “up to a point at which I’m sure that he could still set a steady rhythm and hold it without any input from a power meter or heart-rate monitor.”

Izagirre smiles when he hears that, and concedes it might be true. “I know how to get the most out of myself,” he asserts, humbly.

The best evidence Izagirre’s self-awareness is his palmares. After years of riding for GC at Grand Tours, he had an eye-opening experience on the Giro d’Italia 2015. “I tried to fight for the GC and it didn’t work,” he says. “Now it’s time to be realistic.”

He shifted his focus towards one-week stage races, and it immediately paid off with the overall victory of the Tour of Poland.

A very consistent 2016 followed. He was fourth at Comunitat Valenciana, second at Algarve, fifth at Paris-Nice, third in Romandie, second at Tour de Suisse, and eighth at Eneco Tour. In June he won the Spanish national time-trial championship. And the icing on the cake came at the penultimate stage of the Tour de France, defeating Pantano and Nibali in an exciting, rain-soaked descent from the top of the Joux Plane down to Morzine.

“My best seller,” he says with a wry smile. “I value my third place in Romandie and my second in Suisse as much as that Tour de France stage. Yet people seem to remember that feat only.”

Ion Izagirre (Movistar) powered up the Joux Plane to rejoin the leaders and put himself in a position to have a chance at the stage win. Photo: Cor Vos

A consensual departure from Movistar

At the Movistar team presentation held at the end of January, the team’s principal, owner, and alma mater Eusebio Unzue is asked by a journalist — who is going to fill the space left by Ion Izagirre’s departure from the team? “I don’t know,” Unzue answers. “One of our most promising riders, like Rubén Fernández or Jesús Herrada, will have to step up. One thing is clear, we are going to miss him.”

That’s especially true of Izagirre’s older brother, Gorka; both men signed with Movistar in 2014, and raced together there for three years after coming up through the same Euskaltel–Euskadi squad.

And even if the general public might have been oblivious to Izagirre’s spectacular streak of results all season long, Bahrain-Merida was not. During the summer the new team contacted the Basque rider via his agent, Giuseppe Acquadro. “I didn’t have the intention of leaving Movistar, as I had another year left of contract with the team,” Izagirre says. “But Bahrain told my agent that they saw great potential in me and that I had an interesting amount of [WorldTour] points on my tally.”

After a brief conversation with his rider, Acquadro spoke to Unzue. “Then Eusebio called me straight away,” Izagirre explains. “We discussed the situation and agreed it was a great chance for me to make a step forward, so he let me go.”

It is an anecdote that goes to strengthen Unzue’s reputation for being empathetic to his riders and always seeking a consensual departure whenever a rider wants to leave the team — or Unzue feels he needs to go.

As for Izagirre, his train of thoughts went down a different path. “Previously I had raced for Orbea, Euskaltel, and Movistar. All of them were local teams in which my language, my culture, and my people surrounded me,” he says. “And, being in such a comfort zone, I was reluctant to change. ‘Why should I change, if I feel great where I am?’ I think I was even scared of changing. And, you know, sometimes is good to get out of that box. In my case, I think it was time for me to step up and become a leader.”

After a disappointing Giro d’Italia where he realized he is not cut out to be a Grand Tour contender, Izagirre won the overall at the 2015 Tour of Poland.

Doubts and domestiques

Even if he feels that he was not “underrated” at Movistar, and assures that he had “a fair share of space and freedom” there, the truth is that the transfer to Bahrain-Merida has raised Izagirre to a new level.

“I am a leader now,” he says. “This team is made for Nibali, who will focus on the Giro d’Italia and build-up with Tirreno-Adriático and other events. And then there is me. I will have a parallel racing schedule and the pleasure of having my own group of riders around me. I am bound to take responsibilities and, at some point, be a reference point within the peloton.”

But with a new status come new challenges – and also new doubts.

“I don’t know if I am cut out for the role of leader or not,” he admits, with honesty. “I don’t think it will affect me to be considered leader or favourite for a race in terms of pressure, and neither will the notion of knowing I am meant to get good results. What maybe would affect me is noticing the eyes of my teammates looking at me, or being forced to take the reins and make certain decisions during the race. Sometimes I am too dubious. I overthink. Maybe I will make wrong decisions, or take too much time to decide.”

But, even after expressing this legitimate uncertainty, Izagirre looks upbeat, cheerful – confident. “Over the years I’ve worked for leaders such as Samuel Sánchez, Nairo Quintana, or Alejandro Valverde. I’ve learnt a lot from them, and also from my own experience as a domestique. I know that leading is not about being a mere commander. It is also essential to care about the domestiques on the road, at the dinner table, and in the hotel room. A leader has to share, listen and learn with his teammates. He has to be there always, and not only to crack the whip.”

One of the many tasks that Izagirre and Bahrain-Merida are going to take care of in the coming months is creating a support group of riders for him.

“I want experienced people, able to overcome difficult moments and to operate in complex situations,” he says. “I like Enrico Gasparotto, a guy with many seasons of experience, or Heinrich Haussler, who is great when it comes to positioning and sheltering a leader on the flat and against the wind.”

He also expects to have his cousin, Jon Ander Insausti, on hand — “a big engine who has the potential to become a great domestique.” Izagirre brought his cousin to the team from the Basque Continental outfit Euskadi-Murias, along with his personal masseur, as part of his transfer.

Jon Izagirre took his first Grand Tour stage victory at the 2012 Giro d’Italia.

The goals

Izagirre debuted with Bahrain-Merida in February at Ruta del Sol. He rode well on the two first mountainous stages, holding the pace of Alejandro Valverde and placing fourth on the GC just five seconds behind Alberto Contador. With only an individual time trial remaining to decide the outcome of the race, he seemed like a genuine contender for victory.

“And we were quite sure he was going to pull it off,” says Bahrain-Merida’s DS, Harald Morscher, while showing us a picture of a smiling Ion Izagirre on his iPhone. “See how relaxed he was before the ITT. He was so confident of winning. And, indeed, he was doing very well. But, unfortunately, this fast, right turn came.” There he crashed. “On the recon ride he had seen that the surface was very rough on the inner lane, so he decided he would take the outer one. Only he didn’t see there was an even bigger pothole there. He rode over it, crashed hard, and was too shocked to even continue racing. Luckily he didn’t really harm himself, so he has only lost a couple of days of training and is on track for his goals.”

The first and second of those goals are Paris-Nice and Vuelta al País Vasco. Izagirre is also expected to fight for the GC at the Tour de France, which seems unpleasant for him.

“I’m not really convinced, but I respect the team’s decision and understand its position,” he says. “The principals want to have a leader in the Tour other than Vincenzo Nibali, who will focus his season on the Giro and probably won’t be at his best in July. At the same time, they are sensible and know cycling, so they are aware that the Tour is the biggest race in the world and the best riders contend there. If I lose too much time one day, we’ll change our mindset to stage hunting.”

This new campaign is going to be an exciting adventure for Izagirre. Even if he knows the territory, the circumstances are going to be totally different. In the next months, or years, he will find himself out of his comfort zone. In doing so, he’ll learn about being a team leader — and about himself.

About the author

Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modeling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF

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