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Apart from a brief couple of weeks in June when I¤igo Landaluze won the Dauphin and Aitor Gonzalez the Tour of Switzerland, not much has gone right for the Euskaltel team this season. Dogged by bad luck and, according to the Basque press, less than convincing management, they had another day to forget into Cuenca yesterday, losing Iban Mayo altogether with back trouble and then seeing Gonzalez lose 51 seconds as the result of a crash a few kilometres from the finish.
Gonzalez described his crash as "stupid". He went down when he touched Angel Vicioso's rear wheel, and took the Liberty Seguros rider with him. Although he went straight into an ambulance after completing the stage, Gonzalez is not thought to have suffered any long-term damage.
The same cannot be said for Mayo, though. With his morale already at rock bottom after a season when he has failed to contend at all, the Euskaltel team leader had struggled through the opening days of the Vuelta, hampered by a long-term back injury. Even the intervention of an Italian biomechanical expert failed to alleviate the constant pain Mayo was feeling, and he quit what is likely to be his last race of this season.
"What is clear is that this has been a very bad year," he told Basque newspaper El Correo. "Now I have to start thinking about next year and finding some solutions. When the time is right I will sit down with the team and we will decide what is the best for us all with regard to next season."
There is talk in the Basque press about Mayo moving on, and he would certainly receive some good offers if other ProTour teams knew he was available. This possibility is not so remote given that Mayo is reported to be barely on speaking terms with his team's management duo of Miguel Madariaga and Julian Gorospe.
However, the problem for any team, including his current one, would be knowing what Mayo is capable of and when. For the first half of last season he was a world-beater, then his form and morale collapsed at the Tour de France and has never really recovered. His impressive beating of Lance Armstrong in last year's Dauphin time trial up Mont Ventoux is beginning to seem like a long time ago.
His physical problems stem from two damaged vertebrae that are hampering the performance of his left leg, particularly on long stages. Despite extensive treatment since this year's Tour, where he was no more than an also-ran, Mayo and his team felt it was best for him to quit yesterday rather than risk further damage.
Madariaga admitted he could see after just 30km of yesterday's stage that Mayo was not pedalling comfortably. "It's a spinal column injury, but the doctors as well as we ourselves thought that it would be better for him to come to the Vuelta. It wasn't going to improve by staying at home," said Madariaga, who ended up driving the Basque back there yesterday evening.
Mayo will now spend time working with trauma injury expert Mikel Sanchez in the Basque capital, Vitoria. The recovery process is likely to be lengthy.
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