#1: The golden age of Spanish cycling
Spain is one of the great cycling nations and Spanish teams and riders have been a huge factor at the top level of racing for a long time. In the wake of the successes of Miguel Indurain a huge wave of Spanish sponsors, teams and riders took part at the highest level of cycling. This enthusiasm brought about one of the greatest national generation of cyclists with Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde at the forefront. In 2000 there were 4 Spanish professional cycling teams and there was a total of 89 Spanish riders under contract at the highest level.
This gave plenty of roster spots for young Spanish cyclists to have teams in which they could develop into strong top-class riders without having to burn themselves up just to get onto a team. This generation of Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde comes from this golden age of Spanish cycling and these riders all debuted with Spanish teams. O.N.C.E, Kelme, Liberty Seguros, Banesto (later Ibanesto) or Euskaltel-Euskadi let cycling enthusiasts light up.
In those years there was a broad competition for the biggest talents of Spain and young riders had an abundance of teams where they could join as domestiques and develop into better riders with the experience that the highest level of racing brought to them. Spanish cycling fans got accustomed to this situation and nobody expected this all to go away so suddenly.
#2: The decline of Spanish cycling
Big doping scandals and lastly the world financial crisis of 2007-2008 brought an abrupt end to the fountain of sponsoring money that poured into cycling for most of the previous decades. The environment, that had been taken for granted for such a long time, changed and large corporations had to tighten their belts. From 9 professional teams (5 in the Pro Tour) in 2006, it dropped to a low of 2 in the period from 2014 to 2017, with Movistar being the sole Spanish team in the World Tour (the successor of the Pro Tour).
**Number of spanish cycling teams in WT and PCT from 2006**
This had a negative impact on the distribution and number of Spanish riders at the highest level. In 2003 there were 113 Spanish athletes contracted to the highest level of cycling and thus Spain was the largest producer of professional cyclists in the world. As teams started folding in 2007 folded the amount of high-level Spanish riders fought for a ever shrinking amount of roster spots. This caused a noticeable age squeeze, when older and experienced riders took cheaper contracts for spots that would have usually gone to the next wave to neo-pros. From 2006 to 2014 the number of Spanish pro-cyclist dropped by over two-thirds!
#3: The age squeeze gets noticeable
**Five years after the crash – PCS World Ranking 31-Dez-2013 – Top 10 Spanish riders**
All Spanish top ten riders of 2013 originally started their career in one of the big Spanish cycling teams of the early millenium. Five years after the financial crisis hit Europe only 50% of the top ten riders were still racing for Spanish teams and Euskaltel-Euskadi folded as the second WorldTour team at the end of that season.
The average age of the best Spanish riders was 30,6 years and the only rider under 25 was the young Basque Ion Izagirre that moved to Movistar from Euskaltel-Euskadi to be a high-level domestique for Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. At the end of 2016 Ion Izagirre left Movistar to Bahrain-Merida to have more leadership roles, a move ever so symptomatical of the cycling problem in Spain. The second Euskaltel-Euskadi rider from that top ten is Samuel Sanchez (An olympic gold medalist) that didn’t find a contract until February 2014 when he got a one-year contract with BMC. The best riders Spain had to offer were aging, while younger riders have to leave for foreign teams to get better roles and replacements don’t have the development grounds back this great generation up.
#4: Spanish cycling resurgence?
Now we get to the news articles that inspired me to write this article. On 16th of May this year Euskadi Basque Country – Murias Team announced their plans to join the second tier of cycling and become a professional continental team that would allow them to apply for WorldTour wild cards and allow them to participate in bigger races in general. The Vuelta a Espana organizer supported this move and have guaranteed a wild card for this team. This will mean additional 9 Spanish riders will be able to race in the biggest event of the Spanish cycling calendar. In 2016 France put up the most riders at the Vuelta with 34. Euskadi should bring the race back into majority Spanish wheels in 2018.
Furthermore, a small article on the website of the department of sports for the Burgos region of Spain from early July came to my attention today. The current sponsors of the continental team Burgos-BH have renewed their support for the coming seasons. Team manager Julio Andrés Izquierdo is looking to make the leap to the second tier as well to reach his goal of participating in the Vuelta a Espana as well. The team is looking for an additional €0.8 million to increase the budget to make this reality.
This could mean an increase from one (Caja Rural) to three Spanish PCT teams in 2018. This development mimics the national amateur racing scene has seen a return of funding in the past years already. Big development teams as Seguros-Bilbao still folded (end of 2016), but Lizarte, Caja-Rural Amateurs, Fundacion Euskadi, Aldro Racing and Fundacion Contador are picking up steam and are becoming more and more professional in their development set-up. Last year Lizarte was the first Spanish team to participate at the Giro Valle d’Aosta, the second most prestigious U23 stage race, for a long period. This year at the same race (which ended this Sunday) it was three teams from Spain: Lizarte, Fundacion Contador and Fundacion Euskadi took part in the latest edition.
Apart from the Giro Valle d’Aosta the 2017 season has seen Aldro, Fundacion Euskadi and Lizarte participate in other races in France and Portugal as well. The Spanish national team has finally sending teams to the UCI U23 nations Cup again in the last years, but sadly the Tour de l’Avenir seems to be off the calendar in 2017.
The Spanish public has been waiting for the next big star for a long time. Purito retired last season, Contador seems to have passed his Grand Tour contention years and the evergreen that is Valverde will have to deal with a serious injury for the first time in his career at the age of 37. Five years ago, the prospect of a new Spanish star looked grim and more and more riders had to look for jobs in foreign teams, while just as many went to university and ended their dream of becoming a professional cyclist. Examples are Julen Amezqueta and Cristian Rodriguez that joined Wilier-Triestina(Italy) as there were no options in Spain, Enric Mas went through Klein Constantia (Czech Republic) to land with Quick Step-Floors(Belgium) in the World Tour. Carlos Verona went from Omega Pharma-Quick Step(Belgium) to Orica (Australia), Jose Manuel Diaz joined Israel Cycling Academy and Ivan Cortina went to Bahrain-Merida (Bahrain) last year.
The current wave of U23s, that are benefitting from the additional support and money at a national amateur level, need time and opportunities to take that next step to reach the highest level of competition. These opportunities were few in the last seasons as Movistar and Caja Rural can’t offer that many roster spots. Euskadi-Murias and possibly Burgos-BH will help bridge this development gap and path the way for the next Spanish generation. Marc Soler, Enric Mas and Jaime Roson are just the forefront that benefitted from the return of money into the national development systems. Be ready for Sergio Samitier, Fernando Barcelo, Oscar Rodriguez, Jaime Castrillo, Eduardo Llacer, Inigo Elosegui and many others that will try to be next Purito, El Pistolero or El Bala.
Has the resurgence begun? I believe so.