22 July, 2018

Roberto Laiseka: Great days for posterity

There are days that remain etched in your mind forever. Because of what they meant, the sentiments they awaken or the feats that are achieved, there are days that stay with you for life. When some time later, one or more of these elements of those days reappears in our lives, we often experience a sort of “flashback” that causes you to relive that special moment.

Something like that happened at the recording of the video of the recently launched Orca OMR, along with Egoi Martínez, ex-Euskaltel Euskadi rider and Orbea ambassador, back in 2015 at Luz Ardiden. That day, they said to Egoi a phrase that would accompany him on that first Orca OMR : “Conquer mountains, climb podiums”.

Next, in that mythical backdrop of the Tour de France and with such an epic phrase, he experienced that sort of flashback that made him remember exactly what happened on a day like today 17 years ago, on July 22, 2001: Roberto Laiseka, with his arms raised in victory, celebrating Euskaltel Euskadi’s first win in the Tour de France, at Luz Ardiden. It was a memorable day for all of cycling, especially Basque cycling: a day with a special meaning, thanks to the celebration of the Magdalena festival, the year of the debut of the Basque group in the Tour, in the heart of the Pyrenees…

Egoi says that Roberto has always been “someone special for him.”He joined professional cycling of the hand of the Euskaltel Euskadi team the very next year following that heroic day at Luz Ardiden. The leader of that team so full of enthusiasm was a “grumpy” Roberto Laiseka, as Egoi describes him. He is “a very direct person, but with a big heart; someone special,” whom he wanted to have at his side. And he remains at his side, even today.

With all this in mind, Egoi arrived one day at Orbea’s facilities in Mallabia with the idea of alluding to “this past that will be remembered,” a nod to the “people who have propelled the brand,” to a Roberto Laiseka who “everything he has ridden has been on an Orbea” and “everything he has won, in competitions like La Vuelta a España or the Tour de France itself has been on an Orbea”.And how can we turn down a little tribute on a day like today, but 17 years ago…

We also take advantage of the occasion on which Roberto Laiseka came by to pick up his bicycle to feel closer to everything that was cycling back then, through his words and of course, revealing a little bit of his “big heart”:

– You once said that if you had not been a cyclist, you probably wouldn’t have gotten into sports. How did you get involved with bicycles?

I think I was pretty bad at team sports: football and other sports. I was lucky enough to stumble on cycling, which seemed like I was pretty good at.

– How old were you when you got your first bike?

I’ve always had a bike. I remember I tricycle I had when I was really little when I lived in the baserri and I used to go to the neighbor's house, 400 meters down an unpaved road.

– Before you got started in cycling, were you a fan of this sport?

Yes, ever since I can remember, I’ve always gone to the Tour de France. I’ve seen Fignon and Hinault win, as well as Indurain in his first year. Starting in‘83 or ‘84, we went to the Tour de France on buses chartered by the Bilbao Cycling Society. When we were kids, we used to go and spend a day or two there.

– As a matter of fact, you have talked about being at the Luz Ardiden back in 1990 as a fan.

Yes, and I spilled yogurt on top of my Polaroid camera that day and ruined it. That was the day that Indurain was there, along with Marino and some others that I don’t remember.

– 11 years later, you were the one the fans were cheering for…

Strange how life changes, isn’t it?

“If it hadn’t been for the Euskadi Foundation, I would never have become a professional”

– As an amateur cyclist, you were forced to give up cycling until Miguel Madariaga signed you for the Euskaltel Euskadi team, which back then was the Euskadi Foundation Project. What was that time like?

I had been with Miguel since ‘89 on the amateur team and thanks to a project that was there, he and a couple of other people had gone to see the Tour Pradera and they thought that they could form a Basque team. That’s where the dream came from.

I’ve always said that if it hadn’t been for the Euskadi Foundation, I would never have become a professional, like many others.

– And since then, you matured as a rider, together with the project, from the early years of laying the foundation for the project, until the first team victory in a grand tour, in 1999 in Abantos (Vuelta España).Back then, Roberto Laiseka was 30 years old and the team project had been around for more than 6…

The team changed a lot; it grew little by little, with a few bumps along the way, like in ‘97 when it was in danger of disappearing… and back then, thanks to Euskaltel, the team was gradually consolidated. In 2001, it took the definitive step forward, with the first year it competed in the Tour de France and it has remained at the top level for 12 years.

– What was it like to be invited to join the team? The moment when they told you that you were going to take part in the world’s greatest road cycling competition, with a philosophy like that of Euskaltel-Euskadi.

It was the best for us. We were hoping for that… What we did not expect was the Giro.

– Speaking of philosophy, how does Roberto Laiseka describe a team like Euskaltel?

The philosophy began at its very foundations. In the beginning, we were young riders and veterans, and little by little, things started to change.

– What three adjectives would you use to define that philosophy?

Hard-working, enthused and eager.

“What I remember most about the first days of the Tour was the tension of race. […] It was a whole different level.”

– What were the early days like in the peloton at the Tour de France?

What I remember most about the first days of the Tour was the tension of race. At the neutral start, you could already tell that it was another race. It wasn't that you legs hurt, your whole body hurt. You asked yourself, “What is this?”There was a tension that wasn’t seen anywhere else. It was a whole different level.

– Of course, if we’re talking about the team, we inevitably have to mention the “orange tide.”Probably one of the phenomena at the time was to see how the fans, instead of cheering on a particular rider, supported an entire team. Why do you think that was?

I always said that the Basque fans supported all the riders, everyone. I think the biggest cycling fans have been from Gipuzkoa more than Vizcaya or Álava, because it has been closer. Basque fans have always been on the roadside and I think they always will be.

– Why? Why do we love cycling so much?

Well, I think it’s because they’ve always experienced it at home. They eventually do the same thing with their families. For all these fans, the Tour de France is the ultimate.

– You’ve taken away honors in 3 stages of the Vuelta a España and the above-mentioned in the Tour. How do you remember 'Roberto Laiseka, the competitive cyclist’?

Well, I think I had class and luck. I think I was a rider that found winter very difficult and after May-June, I got along quite well. In modern cycling, maybe I wouldn't have fared so well, because they’re going at 100% from January on. After May, I was a different rider.

“In modern cycling, maybe I wouldn't have fared so well”

– Some remember you as an iron-tough climber who had the peculiarity of attacking from far out, something that once again is rare today (in spite of Froome in the Giro, for example.)

I’ve been a climber and it was the facet in which I did best. That was the good thing about it; I didn’t end up alone in a pass in terms of strength, because I was very bad at positioning myself. I always trailed behind and when I reached my terrain, I liked to move out ahead.

– What differences do you see between cycling in your day and now?

What we’ve already said. They go 100% from January to September. It’s become much more globalized. The races we went to before to prepare, with only a few kilometers and to ride… Now, as they say, they give it 100%, because you train better.

– You’ve been linked to cycling, for example, as a driver for Javier Guillén in the Vuelta. What point are you at now?

I’m a driver in the Vuelta a España, and I’m also here in Itzulia, lending a hand to Javier Riaño and Julián Eraso.

– Do you still take your bike out on a regular basis? At what level?

Yes, but neither cyclotourism nor all out; normal. Before I was a person who went crazy training. [Brief silence] If I ride, unless I do at least 100 km I don’t ride out.

“If I ride, unless I do at least 100 km I don’t ride out.”

– The Orca OMR “Luz Ardiden edition” includes details like the name of the four mountain passes where you earned a stage victory, a “Aupa Laiseka” [Go Laiseka!] and the profile of that victory in Luz Ardiden. However, there is also an inscription that says Ax domaines 22’ 55”. What does this mean?

It’s a mountain pass I did second in the Tour and it seems that I hold the record for the climb. They climbed it again two years ago, and it seems that for now it has not been beaten. There are people who study all that and it must be that.

– What are your aspirations for this bike? Will it share space with your trophies from those victories? Will you ride it?

No, this bike is meant to be ridden hard, of course.