author: Ander Izagirre,
The Rabobank team had a horrible Tour in 2009. They hadn't won a single stage, they didn't have a single rider in the top forty and they just wanted to get to Paris and go home. In the meeting before the penultimate stage, which finished on Mont Ventoux, Juan Antonio Flecha tried to encourage his team-mates:
- Ventoux is a mythical mountain. Winning there is like winning a Paris-Roubaix, today we have to give it our all...
- OK, Flecha," Juanma Garate from Irun cut him off.
- Really: if you win on the Ventoux, you go down in cycling history. Merckx, Poulidor, Charly Gaul won here...
- Shut up, Arrow, I'm going to win so you'll be happy.
There was laughter. Garate recalls that there was laughter and that he jumped in the third kilometre of the stage with a group of sixteen riders. At the halfway point they reached a ten-minute lead, but the teams of the favourites pulled hard and the escapees started to climb the Ventoux with only four minutes to go.
- I felt good," says Garate. On the first stretch of the climb I accelerated to reduce the group as much as possible, to avoid surprises, so that there wouldn't be a game of attacks, counterattacks and vigilance among many riders, because that can get out of control.
He then took off a couple of times and was followed only by Tony Martin. In the following years the German would go on to win the World Time Trial four times, five stages in the Tour, one Paris-Nice, become one of the most powerful sprinters in the peloton for a decade, but at the time he was only a 24-year-old rookie. Garate was 33, so he put his seniority into play.
- A few weeks earlier, we had climbed the Ventoux in the Dauphiné, and I was very familiar with it. The ten kilometres through the forest are very hard, all the time at 9 or 10%, that was the part that suited me best to drop my rivals. But I wasn't interested in dropping them all. Because from the Reynard chalet onwards, the slope becomes gentler, but you enter the bare hillside, in that lunar landscape of white stone, where the wind blows very hard. It's not called Mont Ventoux for nothing! In those final six kilometres you can melt if you're alone against the wind. And we were being chased by the Tour favourites. So when I saw that Tony Martin was following me, I thought: this is the perfect companion until the last kilometre.
Garate had already had his eye on Martin. In the first week of the Tour, the German completed a very good time trial, threw the sprints to Cavendish, hung with the best in the first mountain stage and wore the white jersey of the best young rider.
- Martin was a rookie, but I could already see that he was going a long way. As soon as we passed the Chalet Reynard and the ramps dropped to 6 or 7%, the guy put on a big chainring. We went up in relays, which was great for me.
Garate needed Martin's help to maintain the lead over the favourites. With seven kilometres to go, the gap was only 1'15". Then the favourites began to control themselves, because the first two positions in the general classification were decided for Contador and Andy Schleck, but the third step of the podium was up for grabs between Armstrong, Frank Schleck and Wiggins within a handful of seconds. They attacked, neutralised each other, stopped and attacked again. These marches gave Garate and Martin a bit of oxygen.
With 1.2 kilometres to go, Garate attacked Martin. He left him pinned and flew towards the finish. Or so it seemed. Because a little further on the German was back on the wheel of the Spaniard.
On TV, the commentators were talking about Garate's overconfidence: he attacked too early, he melted against the wind, now he's going to pay for the effort?
But Garate had deliberately allowed himself to be captured.
- I turned around, I saw that I had opened up a gap but was no longer widening it. Martin was keeping me at a dangerous distance, he had me in his sights and I was afraid of getting burnt and that he would come back at the end. I did a bit of theatre.
Martin not only caught him, but overtook him and set a very strong pace until the last corner, with Garate always on his wheel. The favourites appeared at the end of the straights, barely forty seconds behind.
- Martin believed my theatrics. He thought I had melted or had cramps, he squeezed hard to leave me, but in reality he was making me as comfortable as possible.
On the last corner, Garate shot off. As he crossed the finish line, he dropped his hands, clenched his fists and screamed with euphoria.
- It's not that I fulfilled a dream, it's that I achieved something much bigger than I ever dreamed of.
It was a victory in the Tour, a victory on a legendary mountain like the Ventoux, a victory to add to those he had already achieved in the Giro and the Vuelta. Garate attaches great value to his triumphs in the three major races. He also won a stage in the Tour of Switzerland, another in the Giro del Trentino and a Spanish championship. He rode his early years with an Italian team, Lampre, his big race was always the Giro (he finished fourth, fifth and seventh, he also won the mountains), he never made the Tour a priority goal of the season. But at the age of 33 he was presented with the opportunity and he used all his strength and veteran experience to strike a blow in the bare mountain.
The next day he arrived at the Champs Elysées floating with happiness. That evening, at the hotel, he called the lift to go down to dinner. The doors opened and he met Tony Martin.
- Oops! What a face we both made.
The veteran Garate had climbed the Ventoux three seconds before the young Martin, then they descended together to the dining room in Paris.
LATEST BASQUE VICTORIES
Few Basque cyclists of the 21st century have achieved such a remarkable track record as Juanma Garate, but he perhaps received less recognition because he rode for foreign teams... right in the golden age of Euskaltel-Euskadi.
-It's true that the media were talking a lot about the home team, that the fans were really behind the orange tide, and I understand that. I remember once I was climbing the Tourmalet escaped in a group that also included Egoi Martínez, Amets Txurruka and Gorka Verdugo. I was pulling, but all the shouts were "aupa Egoi, aupa Amets, aupa Gorka". It's normal, because the fan's eye was going for the orange jersey.
Euskaltel-Euskadi disappeared, but Basque cycling remained present in the Tour and scored another couple of victories on outstanding stages. In 2016, Ion Izagirre launched himself on a memorable descent of the Joux Plane in the rain, unseated several of the peloton's best downhillers such as Pantano, Nibali and Alaphilippe, and won at the finish in Morzine. In 2018, Omar Fraile finished off a breakaway on the climb to the Mende aerodrome, ahead of strong rivals such as Alaphilippe, Stuyven and Sagan.
So much for the Basque triumphs, so much for a story that has extend even further as soon as the Tour leaves Euskadi, with the spectacular victories of Pello Bilbao and Ion Izagirre.
Author: Ander Izagirre
Photos: Sirotti and Twitter Juanma Garate