Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Haimar epitomized everything I admired when I first fell in love with the sport: he was Basque, he climbed like a God, and he was Euskaltel. Yes, together with Ibán, he was Euskaltel. I think many felt that way. Perhaps some still do. But now he's gone, and it's high time to pay tribute to a true Euskaltel legend.

I first remember seeing Haimar racing when he abandoned the Tour in 2004. I was still in my early days as an Euskaltel fan, but I felt so sorry for him that day that, in an instant, he became one of my personal favourites. He still is in fact. Nothing, not even joining Astana, which, as you'll most likely know by now, is one of the teams I take a dislike to the most, can take away my affection for Haimar. It's the same as with Ibán; eventhough he let us all down taking drugs, he's still my favourite. Nothing can change that. Now, of course, Haimar doesn't mean the same to me as Ibán does. But, like Ibán, he's one of the most talented riders of his generation. And, sadly, once again like Ibán, he never got to fulfil that undoubted potential.

As a 23-year-old unknow quantity, Haimar rose to prominence in the latter half of the 2000 season. He showed immense promise by, first, winning the deciding time trial and the overall in the Euskal Bizikleta, then going on to place second in another time trial and thus overall in the Dauphiné Libéré, only beaten by a certain Tyler Hamilton, before going on to place 10th overall in his GT debut in the Vuelta a España. It was breathtaking stuff from the 23-year-old, so breathtaking in fact that he was dubbed the "New Induraín". Though, like every other "New Induraín", he failed to build on his early promise. So much in fact that his double win in the Bizikleta in spring 2000 is his only win to date. How a rider of his calibre has managed to win only once is a question I'm not able to answer. And I don't think I'm the only one.

The Tour de France has since 2003, without exception, been the one, and often only, goal of his season. As a result he's rarely been in top form neither before, nor after, the Grande Boucle. This has of course had its positives and negatives. On the positive side, Euskaltel have had a man capable of winning a Grand Tour on it's hands. That's a big plus for any team wanting to be invited to the biggest races around the world. On the flipside though, one of the team's best riders' season can come to nothing if he fails to shine in the Tour. That's happened, and not only once. But that's the price you've got to pay, and no one can say that it hasn't been worth it. Haimar's been fantastic to watch over the years in the Tour; he's had a great career no doubt. But the feeling that it could have been even greater can't seem to let go. I tell you, Haimar's always been capable of winning the Tour. The talent's there, period. But he'll never do it. At Euskaltel, a lot of things tend to go wrong. Rider's going in and out of form over night, good riders turn bad when they join the team, everything's public, riders being caught doping and, up until this year, the team have never really worked as a unit. Why that is I don't know. But it certainly hasn't helped Haimar achieve the goals he so easily could have obtained in different surroundings. But to blame it all on the team would be too easy. Haimar knows this, and he knows he could have done a lot of things different. But even so, he remains one of the team's all time greats.

Some say sport is beautiful. I agree. I value the aesthetic aspects of sport highly. But I rarely call sport events or performances beautiful. But I call watching Arsenal play football beautiful. And I call wacthing Haimar and Ibán in tandem at the 2003 centenary Tour beautiful. That was cycling at it's most perfect. Rarely have I seen cycling, or any sport for that matter, so aesthetically pleasing. It was something about how the two of them climbed those mountains in the Alps and in the Pyrenees so easily. And with so much style. I cherish the videos of Ibán and Haimar pushing Lance and Jan to the limit. That was quite something.

We'll never get to see that "something" again, at least not in an Euskaltel shirt. I'm sad to see him leave the team. This is where he belongs. Euskaltel without Haimar and Ibán is not Euskaltel. It's a new time, both for the team and for Haimar. For all I know he might blossom under Bruyneel's guidance. Most riders tend to. Maybe he can finally take that last step and become a Grand Tour winner. I'd love to see that happen. It wouldn't be with Euskaltel, but he's still Basque, and he stills climbs like a God. And he's still Haimar, the great Haimar Zubeldia Agirre from Usurbil. I wish him all the best.


arnout said...

Great tribute Magnus.

Another example of the Basque not winning rider though :D

I am afraid he will only have to do his job for Contador and maybe Armstrong next year. But we'll see, maybe he can lead the team in the Vuelta. Personally I think it is a bad choice for Haimar, joining another team with less grand tour riders (like Lampre etc) would be better, if at all he wants to leave.

Bolsen3 said...

I would really want to see him as a Giro/Vuelta (co)captain, to see him as just another Contador/Armstrong helper would be awful, but I fear that's exactly what we'll see...

Magnus said...

With Lance, Levi, Contador, Klöden and Brajkovic in their ranks, I more than suspect that Haimar will play second fiddle all year long. Bad career-move I'd say, but financially I think he's done the right thing.

vitesse said...

While I agree with the sentiments that 2003 Tour de France was the high moment in Euskatel's history for me, I'd have to wake you up to the realization that Zubeldia will never come close to winning the Tour riding for Astana. He will be mountain domestique at best and they will suck the life out him. He will have no opportunities to pursue his any individual goals like going for a stage win. That is especially if Armstrong rides the Tour.
I would hope that they may allow him the team lead in the Vuelta but depending on whether Levi does the Giro even that may be an impossibility. Levi will likely ride the Giro in support of Armstrong. If that is the case then its possible that Contador will ride the Vuelta.
Zubeldia has signed his career over to a life of indentured servitude.


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