Long live the orange underdog: Euskaltel-Euskadi is back

by Iain Treloar

Batman and Robin. Han Solo and Chewbacca. Gin and tonic.

Some pairings are so iconic that one without the other seems somehow wrong.

On which note, news from Spain overnight of a revived partnership between a Basque telecommunications company and a Basque ProTeam has restored order in the universe: Euskaltel-Euskadi is back.

From 1998 to 2013, Euskaltel-Euskadi was one of professional cycling’s great underdogs, and one of its most iconic teams. Founded and sponsored by the government of the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain, with commercial support from the Basque telecom company Euskaltel, Euskaltel-Euskadi was a major protagonist in the more mountainous races on the calendar.

The team had a number of its most important milestones in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Roberto Laiseka was responsible for a couple of high-profile stage wins at the Vuelta a España and Tour de France; later, Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia both finished in the top 10 overall in the 2003 Tour de France, with Mayo also winning the prestigious Alpe d’Huez stage that year. Mayo’s other career highlights included one of the sport’s most spectacular mullets, and a career-ending EPO ban after he left Euskaltel-Euskadi to join the notorious Saunier-Duval squad.

The team’s next generation also made a splash: in 2008, Euskaltel-Euskadi veteran Samuel Sanchez won Olympic gold in the road race at the Beijing Olympics. Sanchez went on to finish runner up at the 2009 Vuelta a España and the 2010 Tour de France, and claimed final KOM honours in the 2011 Tour de France, joining teammate Egoi Martinez (2009) in that honour.

Even in Euskaltel-Euskadi’s declining years, the roster nonetheless featured riders that would grow into prominence later in their careers. Names including Mikel Landa, Mikel Nieve, Igor Anton, Romain Sicard and Ion Izagirre were all on the team’s roster in its final season, 2013.

In total, the squad won 18 Grand Tour stages over its lifespan, with a charisma when the road went uphill that was only matched by their lacklustre performances on cobbled and sprint stages, and love of a good crash.

Euskaltel-Euskadi was inextricably linked with both a visual and cultural identity. Riding angular Orbea bikes in highly distinctive orange kits, the team was one of the most recognisable in the peloton, enjoying an enthusiastic following in the cycling-mad Basque region straddling the French and Spanish border. They were a de-facto national squad for the nationless Basque, who have at various points and with varying degrees of violence, pushed for independence.

Iban Mayo leads home Jan Ullrich and Haimar Zubeldia on the 15th stage of the 2003 Tour de France. The Basque duo finished fifth and sixth on the GC that year.

For the duration of the team’s existence the roadsides of the Pyrenees and beyond were frequently lined with Basque fans clad in orange, waving the green, white and red Basque flag. Euskaltel-Euskadi’s dissolution in 2013 was perhaps a relief for English-speaking commentators of the sport, who’d spent the last couple of decades stumbling over the complicated jumble of vowels, Zs, Ks and Xs that made up the names of its riders, but the squad’s disappearance was nonetheless a poignant moment. A rumoured revival of the team in 2014 with backing from F1 driver Fernando Alonso fell over, and that was that for the orange underdogs.

The current iteration of the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad previously existed as a Continental feeder squad to the WorldTour team, riding most recently as Fundacion Euskadi and feeding no other team directly (although, notably, it was where rising EF-star Sergio Higuita was plucked from last year). In 2020, the squad stepped up to the second-tier ProTeam level for the first time.

Curiously, the team’s return to the upper levels of the sport is spearheaded by Mikel Landa, who is currently active on the road as Bahrain-Merida’s GC star but is simultaneously the president of Fundacion Euskadi. “We want to put the team back where it needs to be,” Landa said at the sponsorship announcement. “The collaboration with Euskaltel, as well as the move to the UCI ProTeam category, is a move in that direction.”

“The relationship of Euskaltel with cycling and Fundación Euskadi has been a success story. We want to repeat the great union and bring back the excitement that it generated in all the fans,” said Euskaltel’s president Xabier Iturbe. “This team is something unique; it represents an entire country, and we want to be part of it once again.”

Mikel Nieve takes an emotional stage win at the 2011 Giro d’Italia.

The reborn Euskaltel-Euskadi will debut at the Itzulia Basque Country, from April 6-11, where they’ll be hoping to make enough of an impression to contend for their first Grand Tour berth later in the year at the Vuelta a España. There are three Spanish squads in the mix for the two wildcards – Caja Rural-Seguros, Burgos-BH and Euskaltel-Euskadi – but the return of an iconic sponsor probably won’t hinder the Basque team’s chances.

The team has a long journey ahead in order to regain the heights of its glory days, but those with a nostalgic memory of the orange-clad climbers animating the race will be happy to see Euskaltel-Euskadi returning to some sort of prominence again.

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