Friday Feature EXCLUSIVE: Up close & personal with Iñigo Asensio

Inigo Asensi at work (image courtesy of Joserra Alvarez)

Inigo Asensi at work (image courtesy of Joserra Alvarez)

I’m back in my favourite spot on the VeloVoices sofa sipping an espresso and chatting with Iñigo Asensio who – among many other things – commentates live at all professional cycle races in the Basque country, in Basque. He is to Basque cycling what Daniel Mangeas is to French, but with a twist.

Let me explain. While spectators near to the finish line at French races generally have the benefit of a big screen to watch the action unfold, they frequently don’t in Spain. It’s left to the commentators to convey, as expressively as possible, what’s going on. The skills required to be, in effect, a radio commentator are different, and arguably broader, than those for television.

One or two of you might be thinking: Sheree, that’s all well and good but I don’t understand Basque. Frankly, me neither, just the proper nouns. Iñigo essentially does a two-handed commentary with Juan Mari Guajardo who, I assume – and please correct me if I’m wrong Iñigo –  says pretty much the same in Spanish. Iñigo’s skill lies in his ability to convey the excitement of live racing not by what he says but by how he says it. And let’s not forget he’s normally commentating to a very knowledgeable audience: the Basques love their cycling.

Sheree: Can we kick off by telling our readers a bit about yourself and specifically how you got into commentating at live races?

Iñigo: I practised cycling until I was 18 and then started studying journalism. When I was 15 the team I used to ride for organised some races every year, and one time they needed a commentator. I was too young to think about what I was doing in this moment. And surprisingly, it changed my life  – if I can say that now that I’m 26 years old – because I was planning on studying engineering, and at 18, I decided to change and switched to journalism. I left competing in cycling events and started a new relationship with the sport: as a commentator.

Well there you have it. Never turn down an offer of a microphone!

Inigo with Samu Sanchez and Igor Anton (image courtesy of Joserra Alvarez)

Inigo with Samu Sanchez and Igor Anton (image courtesy of Joserra Alvarez)

Sheree: I have only ever watched cycling in Spain, in the Basque country, but I have been impressed with the depth and breadth of grass-roots support for the sport and specifically the number of youngsters I have seen in club kit – riding on the roads and in team photographs – the number of race reports and results in the newspapers and the backing given to these youngsters in the local communities. Can you tell us a bit about how the sport is organised and promoted in the Basque country which sets it apart?

Iñigo: I think this is something difficult to explain. I suppose that there is a whole generation, or generations for whom cycling has been a real passion. And they have transmitted this feeling to their sons and daughters for years and years. And what’s more they have organised cycling schools with good infrastructure to make this passion something real. Many people are working silently in the background in favour of cycling in the Basque country – they are its true supporters. But I think that this happens also with other sports. We have only two million inhabitants and yet we will have more than 20 representatives in London 2012! There are only nine teams in the Spanish Football League that have won the Championship during the last century: Real Sociedad of San Sebastian and Athletic Club of Bilbao are two of these teams. Okay, that’s enough, I’m feeling a little bit patriotic. (Laughs)

Sheree: As a consequence of that support, there are a significant number of Basque riders in the peloton – probably more than people realise – and they’re not all racing for Euskaltel-Euskadi. You have a distinct advantage in that you must have cycled competitively against a number of them and therefore know them well?

lnigo finishing 17th in Basque championship (image courtesy of Juan Marie Tolin)

lnigo finishing 17th in Basque championship (image courtesy of Juan Marie Tolin)

Iñigo: I know some of them, but more than that I know how hard it is to become a professional rider. Many young riders – me too – want to get there when they’re teenagers. That’s why I respect and admire this sport so deeply. I have known it [at a level] far away from professional cycling, but known it anyway, and it’s incredibly hard and incredibly beautiful. 

I think most of us who ride, whatever our level, would agree with you. It’s the hardest sport I’ve tried, and I’ve tried plenty!

Sheree: Does this, perhaps, give you greater insight? Television commentators in particular, when picking who they think will win a particular race, are notorious for giving any contender ‘the kiss of death’, thereby ensuring he either has a mechanical, falls or is next seen hanging off the back of the peloton. I think part of the allure of cycling is that, most times, it’s hard to predict who’ll win. Would you agree?

Iñigo: Yes, cycling is unpredictable. We always use an expression that says  some stages can decide who won’t win the overall, but they never say who will win it. The latest winner needs to be the first after each day, each mountain, each attack, each accident … There have been many surprises in the history of this sport, so you know that anything can happen.

Sheree: Viewers have recently – and perhaps surprisingly – seen Ion Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) performing on the Belgian cobbles, while last year Jonathan Castroviejo (formerly Euskaltel-Euskadi, now with Movistar) amazed us with his time-trialling performances. These two, among others, are proof positive that not all Basque riders are, as often misconceived, purely mountain goats. But who do you think are going to be the Basque cycling stars of the future? Who should we be keeping an eye on?

Gorka Izagirre being interviewed after winning Klasika Ordizia (image courtesy of R D Whatley)

Gorka Izagirre being interviewed after winning Klasika Ordizia (image courtesy of R D Whatley)

Iñigo: It’s strange because I think that Ion Izagirre will be a three-week tour rider, and not a rider for the Belgium classics. Probably his brother Gorka, who won the Tour of Luxembourg and the Klasika Ordizia, is better at this type of cycling. Gorka is a winner, he is fast and will win many races in the future. I think Ion is a more complete rider, but he has a different mentality and he has a very good balance between time trials and high mountain stages. But there are more riders like Pello Bilbao, who shone in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, and he is one of the best riders that we have seen on our roads. Don’t forget Beñat Intxausti, he needs to come back to his level of 2010 but he is an incredibly good rider. I think also Mikel Landa will give us great victories. And there are others, like Garikoitz Bravo, who is growing race by race and he is only 22. Jonathan Castroviejo has something special, his abilities at time-trialling make him different among our riders.

Well, that’s given us plenty of names to keep an eye out for over the coming seasons.

Sheree: Spanish racing appears to have been harder hit than most with races disappearing from the racing calendar, races being shortened and, potentially, at the end of the season the loss of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team, at least in its current format. Could you expand a little on these issues and, if possible, give us some indication of whether or not the situation is likely to improve? 

Iñigo: I think it is difficult. The economic situation in Spain is getting harder every day. Government is reducing money for culture, for medical services. Last year in February 25 films were being filmed in Spain, in 2012 only one. The public debt has increased more and more in the last years and in this situation the budgets for everything are being reduced. Public and private companies are not in good economic health and in many cases, even if they are in a good economic situation, they use the crisis in order not to give money for sport events. Cycling is a free sport show for people, and this makes it more difficult to organise a race. UCI ProTour is an expensive league. There are many facts at the same moment that are hurting this sport.  

It would appear that the prognosis, at least in the short to medium term, is not good.

Sheree: With London 2012 drawing ever closer, perhaps you could also tell us a little about your Basque Team 2012 project?

Inigo with triathlete Ralph Samson at Bilbao Triathlon (image courtesy of Gorka Elarre)

Inigo with triathlete Ralph Samson at Bilbao Triathlon (image courtesy of Gorka Elarre)

Iñigo: I have been working for BAT Basque Team for the last year. It is a foundation with the aim of promoting high-level sport in the Basque country and depends on Basque Government and some other sponsors for support. I’m directing and presenting a TV show – BAT to London 2012 – about all Basque sportsmen and sportswomen that are working to be at the Olympic Games. As I was saying before, we are over two million inhabitants, and we will have more than 20 representatives at London 2012. It’s been a great experience, working with all those great sportsmen and sportswomen, not all very famous, but they are among the best in the world at their sports. We have time to film the show, to know them outside the sport. We have travelled to London many times, we have seen all the changes in the Olympic Park. I’m really excited with London 2012 and our representatives’ work.

We’ll be sure to keep a look out for the Basque competitors at London 2012. [Easy to spot from their names! – Ed.]

Sheree: While there’s a wealth of bike racing in the Basque country, Iñigo also commentates on football and rowing [in the sea], two other sports which are inordinately popular in the Basque country. So are you a Real Sociedad supporter or, as you and Xabi Alonso come from the same town, have you perhaps switched allegiances?

Iñigo: Yes rowing is an incredibly popular sport here. On 30th June I will start commenting on Liga San Miguel during the summer around many cities on the Cantabrian coast. I really enjoy it! And also football. But no, I didn’t switch allegiances. Xabi Alonso grew up as a football player at Real Sociedad, when they were second in the Spanish League 2002/03. The team also played Champions League. When I was five years old, I started going to Atotxa – Real Sociedad’s old soccer field. When you really feel a team, you can’t change it – no way. 

I’m teasing! Every football fan knows that one’s team is a choice for life. No chopping or changing when things get tough.

Sheree: And, finally, I’ve noticed that many of the Spanish riders have a bit of a sweet tooth. How do they manage to stay so slim while eating cake?

Iñigo: (Laughs) I didn’t know about it, but I suppose cycling is so hard that you can eat some cakes while nobody realises it.

Sheree: I make a mean cake myself and am developing a range of cakes specifically for cyclists. In fact you might say I’m well known on the Cote d’Azur, within the cycling fraternity, for my baking. If Euskaltel-Euskadi require cakes for any of the Grand Tours, please feel free to pass on my telephone number or email address. If you need further endorsement, Astana registered their best results in the Vuelta a Espana 2011 the day after consuming my cakes!

On that lighter note, Inigo thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us and your encyclopaedic knowledge. Hopefully we’ll be returning to chat with Iñigo ahead of August’s Clasica San Sebastian and this year’s Vuelta a Espana. 

Other VeloVoices interviews:

Geoffroy Lequatre (Bretagne-Schuller) part 1, part 2

Marc De Maar (UnitedHealthcare)

Amael Moinard (BMC)

Photographer Roz Jones

Bobby Julich – Sky race coach

One thought on “Friday Feature EXCLUSIVE: Up close & personal with Iñigo Asensio

  1. Pingback: The A to Z of Basque Cycling, Part 2 | VeloVoices

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