The story of how Samuel Sánchez left his home in Oviedo in hilly Asturias to move to the small and quaint village of Güeñes in the Basque Counry to further his dream of making it as a professional bike rider is well known and one that's forever ingrained in his, and Euskaltel Euskadi's, DNA.
While 'Samu' succeeded and reached the very top of the profession of his dreams, others have failed. In early September last year, two young 18-year-olds left their homes in Castellón to pursue their own dreams on the bike, signing for the Fundación Ciclista Euskadi's sub-23 team, Naturgas Energía. Where did they settle down? You guessed it: Güeñes.
Bernat Font and Noel Gil both came over from the Foundation's partner club Castilla de Ondo, a club run by José Cabedo - the late and great Víctor's brother. While the road from the sub-23 team to the lofty heights of Euskaltel Euskadi and the WorldTour is a long and often arduous one, the duo appeared to possess the talent to make a name for themselves much in the same way a young Sánchez once did.
"I hope they'll go on to achieve the same success, or more, as our Samuel has done", Koldo Artaraz, the Mayor of Güeñes, told the Basque media upon the young duo's arrival.
Nearing the end of their first season with the red and white's, Font and Gil have successfully adapted to the rigours of racing in their first season on the sub-23 circuit. Speaking in early August, Font appears very much at ease in 'the land of Samuel Sánchez'.
"I really like it here", he tells Basque Cycling News. "(Fundación Euskadi president) Miguel Madariaga and (former cyclist and Víctor Cabedo's former girlfriend) Dorleta Zorilla advised us to come and live here. It's a quiet place where I'm able to focus on my riding and my studies - the two reasons I decided to move to Euskadi for.
"It's also one of the best places to train, a fact confirmed by Sánchez growing up as a cyclist here. The people in Güeñes have welcomed us in an extraordinary way - we even did an interview with the Mayor! A lot of people encourage us to follow Sánchez's path. Being so far from home, we've really appreciated the support".
While Font might have found his place of residence to his liking, not everything's been as smooth on the bike. A knee injury ruled him out of competition for the first few months of the season, but, since then, things have picked up steadily. As recently as last Friday, he won the intermediate sprints-classification in Muxika.
"I was ruled out with injury 'till early May. Since then, though, in the few months I've been competing, I've noticed I've improved and adapted well to the level - I was for example selected to ride some of the biggest races on the national calendar, like the Vuelta a Navarra and the Clásica de Mungia. I hope to keep improving and rack up good results".
Font has appeared to be relatively solid on all terrain thus far in his young career. When asked to characterize himself as a rider, the word 'versatile' unsurprisingly comes up quickly.
"What kind of rider I am? That's a really hard question!
"You could describe Bernat Font as a versatile rider, very hardworking, able to defend himself in the mountains as well as on the flats and in the time trials, and with a good finishing kick in small groups. One of my strengths, though, is that I read races pretty well. I also like the teamwork, and I'm always looking to go into breaks and be aggressive.
"My weak points? Haha, I'm not going to tell you that!"
Living as he does in the comarca of Las Encartaciones, training buddies aren't hard to come by. Sánchez might not be his most frequent training partner, but a number of other big names are.
"I have the great fortune of training with a group of professionals like Iker Camaño (NetApp-Endura), Omar Fraile (Caja Rural) and Igor Merino (Equipo Euskadi)", he enthuses. "You learn something new every day you go riding with them. There are also my team-mates Noel Gil and Óscar González del Campo (who I share a flat with in Güeñes), Egoitz Fernández of Seguros Bilbao, Ibai Salas of Caja Rural and David Puente, the only mountain biker in our grupeta."
Surrounded by top riders and a member of one of Spain's most lauded sub-23 teams, Font's future looks rosy. The future of bike racing in the Basque Country, though, does not.
Euskaltel Euskadi and Equipo Euskadi are both likely to shut down by the end of the current season, meaning young hopefuls like Font will have a harder time getting a shot at the big time. According to the Naturgas Energía prodigy, the Continental-ranked Euskadi team disappearing would be "very unfortunate".
"Euskaltel and Equipo Euskadi shutting down would affect the whole of Basque cycling", he says. "If the only two professional Basque teams would disappear, turning pro would become even harder. What's more, the outlook in the rest of Spain is the same or even worse.
"The Fundación Euskadi has done a lot for young cyclists and given many riders the opportunity to ride professionally. To me, it would be very unfortunate if the project disappeared. Hopefully both Euskaltel and Equipo Euskadi find a new sponsor for the good of Basque cycling".
Fittingly for a bike rider that appears mature beyond his young years, he asked towards the end of the interview if he could thank "everyone who believes in me and helps me move forward". Having set him up in Sánchez's backyard in Güeñes and given him a spot on Naturgas Energía, Madariaga is undoubtedly one of the people Font is referring to. Madariaga's project might be living its final weeks, but Font, and apparently the whole of Güeñes with him, hopes his journey has just started.
Photo: Maialen Zuazubiskar