Loyal and hardworking, Samu’s not one to rest on his golden Olympic laurels. Since turning professional in 2000, he’s only ridden in the orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi or the colours of Spain. So how did a boy born 34 years ago today in Asturias end up riding for a Basque-only team?
Miguel Madariaga, the president of the Euskadi Foundation, took a chance on Samu in 1996 – it’s one he’s never regretted. Madariaga’s son Mikel, who had often raced and lost against Samu in the junior ranks, tipped his father off as to Samu’s potential so he went to watch him race in the 1996 Tour of Biscay.
Madariaga made the 18-year old Samu an offer to leave Oviedo, continue his schooling in the Basque country and join Olarra Erkoreka, the Euskaltel-Euskadi feeder team. If he performed well, he’d become a professional.
Three years and nineteen races later Samu crossed the Rubicon and became a professional road racer with Euskaltel-Euskadi. He had one win to his name, stage five of 1997’s Bidasoa Itzulia. Sadly Samu’s mother, who passed away in August 2000, never saw her son record his first significant professional result. Four months later, he finished second in Tro Bro Leon; a semi-classic race in northern France known as the Breton Paris-Roubaix.
I’ve been fortunate to meet him on a number of occasions over the years, most notably at the Tour de France in 2008 the day after he’d finished second to Carlos Sastre on l’Alpe d’Huez, the same position he finished in again at last year’s Tour. Third time lucky Samu – it’s one of his ambitions to emulate the feat of Iban Mayo, who won there in 2003.
I was delighted when he won the Olympic gold medal. I was urging him on while watching the race unfold on the television and was over the moon when he won. Indeed my husband remarked that the whole of the Cote d’Azur must have heard the result!
One of my favourite photos of Samu is the one with his Spanish compatriots, awaiting their departure for Beijing. They look like a bunch of sixth formers on a geography field trip rather than the Olympic champion-in-waiting with his teammates.
Samu’s palmares reveals his consistency. He’s recorded over 100 podium places, of which 38 saw him standing on the top step. This year he’ll be starting his racing on home soil with the Vuelta Andalucia, La Clasica de Almeria and Vuelta a Murcia.
Samu starts every season wanting to perform at a higher level than the previous season. Everyone can identify with that ambition. We may not have a shot at the Tour de France podium but we’re all hoping to record better times, better placings wherever we compete.
Whatever the future holds for Samu and his Euskaltel team mates, he’ll always have a place on my dream team.