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The Euskaltel team look set to go into next week's 'home' Tour of the Basque Country as the only major pro team without a victory this season. This lack of success would be worrying in any situation but is made even more so by the off-season demand by Jos Antonio Ardanza, the chairman of Euskaltel, that results would have to pick up in 2006 in order for the Basque telecommunications company to extend its backing of the team.
Euskaltel's shareholders will make a decision about the sponsorship deal at their AGM on July 1, leaving the Basque team three months in which to make an impact. But there have already been rumours of the team's riders looking for get-out options, notably in the case of Haimar Zubeldia, who is reported in the Basque press to have approached Discovery Channel in search of a contract.
According to El Diario Vasco, Zubeldia, fifth in the 2003 Tour de France, has told some of his colleagues that he is willing to reduce his financial demands in order to move to a team where he might be able to get his career back on track. The future of team leader Iban Mayo, sixth in that same Tour, is also uncertain following a number of disputes with the team's management.
Team boss Miguel Madariaga has responded to rumours of some of his riders moving on by saying: "If there are riders who want to make themselves available to the market, it would be ethical for them to let us know this first."
One thing in the Euskaltel team's favour is that wins do not seem that far away. Aketza Pe¤a was only just foiled by a storming Alexandre Vinokourov on the final stage of the Tour of Castilla e Leon, while Samuel Sanchez has also gone well, finishing fourth and as points winner at Paris-Nice. "We have not won any races, but the attitude is very different to last year," Madariaga told El Diario Vasco. "The team has been fighting hard, getting into breaks, trying all it can. Ardanza himself has told us he is happy with our performances."
Madariaga must be hoping this happiness extends to others in the Euskaltel organisation, which provides half of his team's five million euro budget, the other half coming from the Basque government and regional councils, who have indicated they will be standing by the team.
However, if Euskaltel do withdraw and no replacement backer can be found, Madariaga says he has no intention of "sticking with a second-category team. I have spent 14 years fighting to develop this group in Euskadi and I am not going to keep working so that others can take advantage of that effort."
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