Vuelta Wisdom: Q&A with Markel Irizar

The former Trek-Segafredo rider talks Vuelta, from his days as a rider to analyzing this year's race

Ten years of experience is key to knowing the details and secrets of a race, as is the case of Markel Irizar and the Vuelta a España. For many years the Basque rider was the road captain of Trek-Segafredo, a key man at the side of the leaders, notably in the Grand Tours.

Markel Irizar retired from racing in 2019 and remained with Trek-Segafredo as a young talent scout. Over the years, the chatty and amiable Spaniard earned the nickname ‘Radio Basque’ because of his effortless ability to strike up conversations and share stories. So we sat down with Markel to share his stories of La Vuelta, and learn some of the intricacies of his home country’s Grand Tour.

Markel Irizar looks at his farewell gift, a custom panted Madone, before competing in his last race as a Pro-cyclist at the 2019 Clásica San Sebastián.

Markel, we’re only at the beginning of the race, but there has been no shortage of excitement already.

Yes, the beginning of the Vuelta is traditionally more treacherous than the beginning of the Giro and the Tour, where usually the race builds in a crescendo of difficulty and hardness. Here, the stages are explosive from the start. You have to be fresh enough if you want to be in the game, whatever your goal. For a GC rider, the Vuelta has several favorable aspects, such as a lower level of stress thanks to wide and safe roads. But, especially this year, if you’re not ready from Stage 1 the risk to lose your chance of success is high. We saw this in the third stage, and we will definitely see it in the coming ones. The psychological aspect is also very important at this moment of the season. It’s not easy to face such a tough race with so many kilometers in your legs. The fatigue is felt more and more.

Markel Irizar and Giulio Ciccone during training before competing in Markel's last race as a pro-cyclist.

Among the riders who are looking at the GC, there is also our Giulio Ciccone. You raced with him at the 2019 Giro, your last Grand Tour. How do you see him now?

 I think Giulio arrives at the Vuelta with adequate experience and with the right condition to do well. He’s right to live it day by day, without setting himself too many expectations. So far he always raced with attention, avoiding spending more energy than necessary. He did well in Picón Blanco, but he also did well in the sprint stages, such as in Burgos, where he avoided losing precious seconds by being in front and avoiding the gap caused by the crash. He has a good and motivated team around him, Kenny’s red jersey has been a boost of confidence, you can feel that there is the right spirit.

Giulio Ciccone and Kenny Elissonde during the 2021 Vuelta Stage 6.

My advice is to focus on the management of the different situations without being influenced by the tension that will inevitably grow, in proportion to the fatigue and the importance of the stages. Regardless of the final result, however, this race will be an important experience for his growth as a rider. In addition to Ciccone, I believe that this Vuelta will be a good showcase for López, a climber with potential that we have already seen riding strongly alongside Giulio. I’m also curious to see Simmons in the context of a Grand Tour.

Juan Pedro Lopez

Tell us something that people maybe don’t see on TV but riders experience in the Vuelta.
For me it has always been the home race. Over so many years I learned the routes, the climbs and the pitfalls of the Vuelta. From north to south, I had friends and fans cheering me on, and this makes the race more and more special. So, I would say the atmosphere you feel around, whether you are Spanish or not, is definitely different. Now that most of the race is in August, there are a lot of people who are on vacation. Fans have an easier time following the race, but people in general are attracted to the event. When you’re in the peloton you’re infected by this enthusiasm. You feel it and it’s a big push.

Tell us about your most vivid memories of the Vuelta.

 The very first one dates back to the early nineties with Tony Rominger. By coincidence of fate, his masseur later became mine in many races with Trek, Joaquín ‘Chopi’ González. One of the riders who, as a kid, made me most passionate about the Vuelta was Vandenbroucke. What he did at Navalmoral in 1999 is still to this day one of the greatest cycling feats I have seen.

My best memory as a rider is by far the 2017 Vuelta, Alberto Contador’s last race. There was an incredible feeling in the Team, an extreme desire to do well. The Angliru stage, his last victory, was the perfect conclusion of a well-orchestrated score, both Alberto’s and ours as a team. The final celebration in Madrid was just as touching, one of the best memories I have had in my career.

Vuelta Espana 2017: Trek-Segafredo and Alberto Contador celebrate his final race in Madrid.