Euskaltel takes over in the PyreneesPosted: Monday July 21, 2003 6:08 AM
LOUDENVIELLE, France (Reuters) -- As the Tour de France spent its second day on the tough climbs of the Pyrenees, a new team took over at the head of the peloton.
The bright orange jerseys of the Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi riders replaced Lance Armstrong's protective 'blue train' U.S. Postal Service at the front of the main field Sunday.
They were determined to do well for their fans on the Pyrenean climbs and perhaps make Armstrong suffer yet again.
Known as the 'Naranja mecanica' - the 'clockwork orange' -- team, the Euskaltel riders are the bad boys of the Tour peloton.
They have constantly attacked race leader Armstrong in the mountains and used every trick in the book to lose as little time as possible in the individual time trial last Friday.
Iban Mayo jumped away from Armstrong to win at L'Alpe d'Huez last week and on the first Pyrenean stage on Saturday Haimar Zubeldia also attacked when the American race leader struggled near the finish in Ax-3 Domaines.
Zubeldia is fourth in the overall standings after riding consistently well so far in the Tour.
However, the Euskaltel team's mean streak showed in the individual time trial when David and Unai Etxebarria were put out of the race after cheating.
They were given a time penalty for riding in the slipstream of other riders and so did not complete the stage within the maximum time limit allowed.
The team from the autonomous Basque region in north-eastern Spain is funded by sponsorship, government grants and fan subscriptions. All the riders are Basque or came up through the Basque cycling system.
Its bright orange jerseys stand out even in the multi-coloured Tour peloton, as do its supporters who pack the road side in the Pyrenees wearing orange t-shirts and passionately waving the red, white and green Basque flag.
The team was created in 1994 but struggled to survive, only winning three races in four seasons.
The arrival of Basque telecom company Euskaltel as main sponsor in 1998 saved the team and an estimated budget of four million euro (US$4.48 million) now allows them to sign the best Basque riders in the sport.
Since then the team has regularly won tough mountain stages in the Tour de France with David Etxebarria winning in Pau in 1999, Roberto Laiseka in Luz Ardiden in 2001 and Mayo this year at L'Alpe d'Huez.
Mayo is the Euskaltel team leader after a good ride in the Dauphine Libere race in June, where he left Armstrong behind on the climbs.
However, Zubeldia is riding better and has moved up to fourth overall in the Tour, four minutes 16 seconds behind Armstrong.
"It was a special moment and a special stage for me," Zubeldia said.
"In the final kilometers of the stage I was feeling better and better. Finishing just behind (Jan) Ullrich and ahead of Armstrong was the most important thing I've done in this Tour."
"I still feel fresh and that's important because there are still some important stages to go. Hopefully I'll be able to attack and win another Tour stage for Euskaltel.
"Even though it seems a long shot, I think the podium can be also an objective. It's something new for me but I'm not afraid of trying. That's the strength of our team, we never give up."
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