One of Euskaltel's least publicised signings this winter (and one that didn't provoke outrage among Euskaltel aficionados), might turn out to be one of the most important ones over the course of the next few years. As part of the team's wider strategy to renew itself, team manager Igor González de Galdeano took a leaf out of Team Sky's handbook and brought in a physical trainer with no or remote prior experience in cycling: Iñigo Mujika.
As it happens, Mujika, renown for his work in swimming, triathlon and football, is a good friend of Tim Kerrison's, the Australian who's been lavished with praise in the aftermath of Bradley Wiggins' Tour triumph. The story about how Kerrison completely changed Wiggins' training and approach to the bike is by now an old story, but Mujika's just getting started. No one's expecting the 44-year-old to work miracles with the 'new Euskaltel' and turn Gorka Verdugo into a Tour winner, but Mujika certainly has ideas on how a cyclist should live his life - on as well as off the bike.
Among other things, the native of Pamplona will look to modernize the orange-clad riders' approach to training.
"For a while now I've been thinking that cycling has been stuck in the past", he told acclaimed sports writer Carlos Arribas of El País. "I think cycling is now trying to do what other sports have been doing for decades, which is to pay attention to the four pillars of exercise: training, recovery, nutrition and psychology. In cycling, this has been neglected, it's been put aside. Perhaps not nutrition, but certainly training and recovery. My view is that teams that have recently started focussing on this are reaping the rewards.
"We'll do our best to focus on those four pillars."
When asked whether doping has played its part in training being neglected, Mujika, who's got Ph.D.s in Biology of Muscular Exercise from the University of Saint-Etienne and Physical Activity and Sport Sciences from the University of the Basque Country, provided a relatively firm answer.
"Yeah, I think so", he said. "The cyclists have always trained, and they've trained hard, but in the end there's always been a shortcut, a quick fix. But with the improved controls and the introduction of the biological passport, those shortcuts couldn't replace quality training, though there were still people who thought you could ride hard for two, three hours a day and then take the shortcut afterwards.
"We know a doping program could give you between an eight and ten percent performance gain. And because of this a lot of riders have asked themselves "why should I kill myself in training if I could improve through other means?". But that option no longer exists.
"Cycling without doping is not a utopia. That's becoming clearer to me with every passing day, and as well for the riders, the public and the environment. That's what's important. The risk of returning to what it used to be like is getting smaller".
Mujika received the title of "Head of Physiology and Training" upon returning to Galdeano's outfit, having previously worked under Galdeano between 2006 and 2008. Spells at Athletic Bilbao and Spain's national swim team followed in between, and his return to cycling has so far been successful.
"The integration of the new 'model' has been good", he said. "I get the feeling they're accepting my ideas. We have a new type of cycling with lots of possibilities ahead of us. That's why I'm here. Now is the time people who work like me can make a difference. This is the moment".