A few months ago it looked as if this yearâ€™s Tour de France might have been the last for Euskaltel-Euskadi. Luckily, while Euskadi appears to be moving on, Euskaltel is reportedly stepping-in to fund the World Tour squad for a few more seasons. Crisis avertedâ€”at least for now.
As to the race itself, Euskaltel-Euskadi comes to the Tour de France with a â€œTo Doâ€ list similar to that of the past two editions: mountain stage wins; a podium finish for Samuel Sanchez; and perhaps the polka dot jersey.
The key to the teamâ€™s success is Sanchez, a rider who seems to have found the right formula for success in July with a third-place finish, a fifth-place finish, a stage win, and the polka dot jersey in the last two editions of the Tour. If he has indeed recovered from rib injuries he sustained during a crash at the Criterium du DauphinÃ© earlier this month, thereâ€™s little reason to believe he wonâ€™t achieve similar results this July. (Note: thatâ€™s a big â€œifâ€.) One thing in his favor: the lack of a team time trial means he wonâ€™t be playing from behind in the mountainsâ€”although three individual tests arenâ€™t exactly ideal. And while fewer summit finishes might hurt a climber of Sanchezâ€™s stature, remember that heâ€™s one of fastest descenders in the bunchâ€”heâ€™ll excel on stages ending after a long, technical descent.
Sanchez is joined by Mikel Astarloza, a rider who returns to the Tour after winning Stage 16 and finishing 11th overall in 2009 (results that were subsequently erased following a failed drug test). While the positive test sheds a different light on the Spaniardâ€™s performance, itâ€™s at least worth mentioning that he finished ninth, 16th, and 11th overall in the three Tours before his suspensionâ€”a rather impressive (or unbelievable) string for a rider who was in his twenties at the time.
As for the rest of the squad, the usual group of Basques and Spaniards fills out the roster including Gorka Izagirre, Egoi Martinez, Ruben Perez, and Amets Txurruka. Assuming they all make it through the first weekâ€™s flatter stages unscathed, expect to see them on the attack throughout the mountains.
Man of the Hour
If healthy, it goes without saying that Sanchez is the best of the bunch at Euskaltelâ€”and maybe one of 3-5 best riders in the entire race. That said, rib injuries are painful and can take a long time to heal.
Gorka Izagirre is the youngest rider on Euskaltelâ€™s Tour roster this year. The 24-year-old finished 22nd at the recent Tour de Suisse, a decent result in a difficult event. He also finished both the E3 Prijs and Ghent-Wevelgem this spring. (Which has absolutely nothing to do with how heâ€™ll fare at the Tour but is interesting to report nonetheless.
On the Hot Seat
This year, skeptics will keep a close eye on Astarloza to determine just how â€œauthenticâ€ his Tour de France performances from 2007 to 2009 really were.
While he has yet to win a stage at the Tour de France, Egoi Martinez reminds me of poor manâ€™s (Spanish) version of Cofidisâ€™ David Moncoutie. A talented climber, Martinez frequently features in the King of the Mountains competition at important stage races. A valuable mountain domestique, the 2003 winner of the Tour de lâ€™Avenir could win a stage should the teamâ€™s plans for Sanchez falter early in the race.
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