Vuelta a España - Sad Euskaltel try to savour final Vuelta

Every morning on the Tour of Spain, as crowds gather at the start of each stage, Euskaltel-Euskadi press officer Jesus Aizkorbe stands at the top the stairs of his team bus and hands out posters.

Reuters
Vuelta a España - Sad Euskaltel try to savour final Vuelta
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Euskaltel Euskadi

"There's a lot more interest here than there used to be a few years back," Aizkorbe told Reuters as he passed the posters to a sea of outstretched hands.

"So it's a pity we're quitting now."

Like Euskaltel's 29 riders and 24 staff, Aizkorbe will be out of a job in 2014 because the team are set to fold at the end of the season after 17 years in the sport.

Spain will be left with just one team at WorldTour level and the Basque Country, considered Spain's cycling heartland, will be bereft of its longstanding flagship squad.

"We're not quite running around the other teams here with curriculum vitaes sticking out of our back pockets," team manager Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano said. "But almost."

Nine months ago Euskaltel-Euskadi's orange-clad riders looked like one of the most financially secure teams in cycling with Euskaltel, a Basque telecommunications company, looking set to back the team for a further four years.

But after Euskaltel's co-sponsors failed to provide expected funding, the telecommunications company announced this year it was pulling out of cycling, making the 2013 Vuelta the team's last Grand Tour after nearly two decades in the sport.

"I'm trying to live through this one like it was just another race," Samuel Sanchez, the 2008 Olympic champion and team's best known rider, told Reuters as he signed autographs outside the bus.

"We're riders for Euskaltel-Euskadi until December 31st and we have to be professional right up until the last day.

"But what's clear is this team has been a reference point in the history of cycling and it is going to be remembered as one of the most important the sport has ever had."

Euskaltel-Euskadi have never won a Grand Tour and with their top rider in the Vuelta, Mikel Nieve, in 35th place and four minutes 24 seconds behind the leader, their prospects of changing that are not good.

The team have always been one of the most popular, with thousands of Basque fans crossing the border each July during the Tour and creating an "orange tide" of support for the squad in the Pyrenees in the high mountain stages, where they took memorable victories with Roberto Laiseka in 2001 and Sanchez in 2010.

Now Sanchez, who has never raced with another squad since he turned pro 14 years ago, has no idea where he will be next season.

"I've always defended the orange colours and I'd like to have retired with them too," the 35 year old said. "But if I'm worried about the future, what we have to do is worry about the Vuelta for now.

"We can't let the situation affect us, that's why we're paid to race."

Stage nine of the Vuelta on Sunday runs from Antequera to Valdepenas de Jaen. The race finishes in Madrid on Sept. 15. (alasdair@siapi.es)

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