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After a pretty dismal 2005 season, which came on the back of a very dismal 2004 season for their major stars, the riders of the Euskaltel team have been told in no uncertain terms that the future of the squad depends on their results. Brought together over the past few days in the Basque town of Derio, the riders were addressed by Euskaltel president Jos Antonio Ardanza, who told them "2006 will be a key year, an important year for the future of the team."
Ardanza continued by saying: "The continued existence of the team will depend on the riders, not on the sponsors. If the team responds, the sponsors will respond. There is no problem with the sponsors." Ardanza also reminded the riders of the great successes they enjoyed in 2003, primarily thanks to Iban Mayo's victory in the Tour de France at Alpe d'Huez and Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia's top six finishes in the same race. Clearly, Ardanza wants to see more of the same.
Ardanza recognised that the team had had successes over the last couple of seasons, notably two stage wins in the Vuelta, consecutive overall wins in the Dauphin Libr and a victory in the Tour of Switzerland, but the team has simply not shone when it really needed to. Although Ardanza mentioned no names, the lack of major results stems primarily from Mayo and Zubeldia's descent into recent obscurity.
He also pointed out that the Euskaltel team is unique in several ways among those in the ProTour. "We are competing against teams that have a market of a billion people whereas our team and sponsor is focusing on one of just three million people. Our philosophy is based on youth, the country and the values of the region," said Ardanza.
But the key, it seems, is getting Mayo back to the form that he showed in 2003 but only intermittently since then. The first step towards that has been with a referral to a biomechanics expert, who is advising the underperforming Basque on his bike set-up with the aim of curing his long-standing back problems. Mayo is also being advised by Euskaltel's new management appointee, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, who knows all too well about sudden and unexplained lapses of form from his latter days at Liberty Seguros.
Last year the team took the pressure off Mayo during the early part of the season, but in 2006 he will, as in 2003, be expected to peak for races in April such as the Tour of Basque Country and the Classics. This not only seems to benefit him personally, but the team as well who rode through the early part of this last season as if lacking a figurehead and failed to deliver any results of note.
There is also a strong possibility that Mayo will ride the Giro d'Italia as preparation for the Tour, but Mayo refused to be drawn on this in Derio. "Last year was a very bad one for me," he admitted. "When you have a year like that you want things to be different the next season. So we are all starting from zero and hoping that things improve for us so that we can have a good year." Hardly startling stuff, although he did reveal that he would probably ride "a little bit more" early in the season.
Gonzalez de Galdeano, though, did reveal more of what the team would be doing. As team manager Miguel Madariaga's right-hand man, Galdeano is bringing the kind of planning and organisation to the team that he experienced under Manolo Saiz at ONCE and Liberty. He said the main targets will be the Tour and the main Basque races, but that he also wanted the squad to make a greater impression in the ProTour's team standings, where they were very much also-rans this season. He is also expecting riders such as David Herrero, Samuel Sanchez and Unai Etxebarria to step up and show their class at last.
Overall, Galdeano told El Diario Vasco in Derio, "the team lacks confidence. Our first goal will be the Tour of the Basque Country and we will go there with the strongest team. In other races, we want to make our presence felt, to be noticed. Every rider must know what is expected of him."
Galdeano and the rest of the management team stressed this latter point above all. With Ardanza's words still fresh in their ears, the riders will surely have realised that the consequences of another poor season for the Basque team could have serious consequences for its long-term survival.
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