Huge disappointment for Basques

A Tour that had promised so much for the Euskaltel team is taking on nightmarish proportions as they

A Tour that had promised so much for the Euskaltel team is taking on nightmarish proportions as they
PICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Almost 40 minutes after Lance Armstrong had received a celebratory kiss from girlfriend Sheryl Crow after winning stage 13 at Plateau de Beille, Euskaltel team leader Iban Mayo was being consoled by his girlfriend Goretti. Pictures of the two couples at the finish summed up better than anything how the day's events had gone for two of the Tour's big favourites. While Armstrong appears to be heading for a sixth Tour title, propelled by the incredible strength of his US Postal team-mates, Euskaltel's much-hyped Tour challenge is in complete disarray. In fact, this has pretty been the case for them since Gorka Gonzalez was prevented from starting in Lige because of an elevated red blood cell count. A good performance in the team time trial apart, the Basques have been massively disappointing. Mayo had said the night before the Plateau de Beille stage how much it would mean to him to win so close to home, but the Basque idol almost didn't make it to the final climb at all. Having already lost Haimar Zubeldia with a knee problem early in the day, Mayo appeared to want to quit the race well before the finish when he'd already been dropped by the US Postal-driven group of main contenders. "I just felt a terrible lack of energy and couldn't go on," Mayo explained after the stage. "There are times when you really want to leave it all behind. In the end I didn't quit thanks to my team-mates, who really encouraged me and convinced me to continue. I also thought about the thousands of Basque fans who had come over here. "I don't know what is wrong, I don't have any physical problems, I'm not suffering any consequences of the crashes in the first week. I'm simply not going well. I am going to continue but while I feel like this I don't really have any concrete objective." The Basque team's management has voiced frequent concerns about the pressure they have been under from the doping authorities since Gonzalez's haematocrit reading was released. On Friday night they were prevented from giving Zubeldia a pain-killing shot in his knee, and the Basque rider was then forced to spend almost all of yesterday's stage in the team car after quitting because he was required to give a urine sample at the finish. Yesterday's debacle, which saw Iker Cama¤o as their first rider home in 28th place almost nine minutes down, also brought pressure from the Basque fans. Team boss Miguel Madariaga admitted he had received threats and insults during the stage from members of the orange-clad hordes, who were no doubt as disappointed as the rest of us that the Basque mountain goats failed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the herd.

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