Thursday, December 29, 2011

Transfer season verdict

As 2012 is just around the corner and the new season less than a month away, it's high time to take stock of the comings and goings at Euskaltel this off-season. With the team unable to escape the tough economic climate plaguing professional cycling, the class of 2012 will have to punch well above its weight to survive at cycling's top tabel.

A reduced budget has forced Euskaltel to make do with a bare 23 riders for the entire 2012 season. That's two less than this year and the smallest number of riders since 1999. Make no mistake: these are testing times. For a team set to tackle the entire WorldTour-calendar, a sizeable amount of the Spanish one and three Grand Tours, a 23-rider roster will test the team's quality in depth to the max. In that respect, it's a shame five of the more experienced riders on the team have departed.

Koldo Fernández, Iñaki Isasi, Javier Aramendía, Jonathan Castroviejo and Daniel Sesma will all head for pastures new. Fernández leaving and Isasi retiring leave Euskaltel with a well-documented lack of an out-and-out sprinter in its ranks. Though they've both failed to come up with the goods in terms of results these last couple of years, they both represent a considerable loss to the team. Without the duo, Euskaltel will likely struggle for presence in the sprints frequently.

Castroviejo's departure no doubt represents the biggest loss though. And a worrying trend at it. Like Intxausti, he's a safe bet for future top results. And again like Intxausti, he's opted to leave his home team in search of greener pastures elsewhere. It's rumoured the loss of the Basque Country's biggest talents to rival teams prompted general manager Igor González de Galdeano to call it quits this year. If there's any truth to the rumours is unclear. But it's obviously not helping the team, and Euskaltel will miss Castroviejo's time trialing expertise and overall ability come next season.

Aramendía and Sesma leaving were not surprising given their results (or rather lack thereof) the last few years. But Aramendía's strength and speed on the flats and in the sprints should not be underestimated, while Sesma was a sure bet to offer Euskaltel exposure in every race he participated in. For a relatively young team, their experience will be missed.

In comes three youngsters from Orbea. Victor Cabedo is one of the most sought-after Spaniards in the peloton and needs no further introduction. He'll be a future great if he continues to develop at the pace he's been doing this year. Ricardo García possess climbing and time trialling ability and might, after a year or two, become a pivotal part of Euskaltel's stage-racing team. Solid rider - signing him strengthens the team. Adrián Sáez is of the Sesma-mould, aggressive and strong on the flats, but importantly also possesses the skill to acquire results on his own. At 25, he's no young, raw talent. On the plus side, with age comes maturity and experience.

To sum it up: while the Orbea trio represent decent, perhaps even good, signings, the loss of proven winners Castroviejo and Fernández leave Euskaltel even more dependent on their captains. Antón, Nieve and Sánchez will all be forced to come up with the goods if the team is to reach the high benchmark they've set themselves the last two years. In addition, stalwarts like Verdugo, Velasco, Martínez, Astarloza, Oroz and Txurruka will have to be at the top of their game to provide the team with results in stage-races where none of the 'big three' will be present.

And even more will be expected of youngsters like the Izagirre brothers, Sicard, Landa et al. While they all possess unquestioned quality, they would in an ideal world have had more top-quality, veteran riders around to guide them. Riders like Juanma Garate, David López, Imanol Erviti and the likes spring to mind, but for various reasons they've opted to pursue their careers elsewhere. In their absence, it will take a concerted team effort to guide an Euskaltel high on quality but low on quantity to reach the lofty heights of 2011.

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