Haimar Zubeldia has seen some things. At 37 years old, the Spaniard is entering elder-statesman territory among Tour de France riders (even if he has a ways to go behind Trek teammate, 42-year-old Jens Voigt). He has taken part in 22 grand tours -- the Tour, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España -- including 12 Tour appearances with a personal best fifth-place finish on the general classification in 2003.
This year will mark Zubeldia's 13th Tour participation, putting him within shouting distance of George Hincapie's record of 17 should Zubeldia approach Voigt-ian longevity. To thrive so long in one of the most grueling sports on earth requires either outright stubbornness, or incredible humility and patience. Thankfully, Zubeldia falls in the latter camp. He corresponded with SB Nation to reveal his thoughts on this year's Tour, the most promising young riders today, a quick discussion of cobblestones, and when he will know when the end of his career has finally come.
What is your best memory from the Tour de France?
I have a lot of memories from the Tour de France, good ones and bad ones. The Tour gives you a lot or takes a lot, in the same way, but in general the Tour has given me a lot. If I need to choose a good one I keep with special memories the Tour of 2003. It was my third Tour and it was the first time I saw my face at the first line of the best cycling race in the world. I had good legs during all the Tour and the stage of Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees was the best day I had. I also have good memories of the Tour, when I was part of the team of the winner Alberto Contador in 2009. It was special to celebrate this victory and to be on the podium of Paris as a member of the best team of the race.
What about the most chaotic?
The most chaotic memories at the Tour (have) been the ones that I had falls. For example, last year I started the Tour in a good shape and I had a fall in the first week with a broken finger. I could finish the Tour but it was a hard one for me. I suffered a lot, physically and mentally.
What makes the Tour de France special compared to other grand tours -- the Vuelta a España and the Giro d'Italia?
I think that the Vuelta and the Giro are also good, beautiful and big races, but due to my characteristics the Tour de France fits me better. In this period of the season my shape is normally good and the racing mode of the Tour de France fits my best characteristic, the resistance. I have good memories of the Vuelta also, it is the first big race I raced and I think that I have had good actuations there during my nine participations. I have only taken part once in the Giro and I have special memories of the beautiful mountains. The repercussion of the Tour is bigger comparing with the others, and it makes the Tour the best in my opinion.
How has your role changed as a rider, from your first Tour de France to now?
The evolution of my role at the Tour has changed several times during my 12 participations. After the good result of 2003 I went to the Tour as a leader of Euskaltel team during some years. In the same time the pressure to obtain good results increased, and maybe the results were not as good as the expectations we created. After some years at this role I decided to change the team (I signed with Astana) and my role changed to help the team. In the last years I have had more freedom because we have not had a leader in a good position on the classification and I obtained a good result, sixth in the GC, in 2012.
Does it feel weird to be considered one of the sport's elder statesmen?
It is my 17th year as a professional rider and I couldn't imagine this when I passed to professionals. I have 12 Tour, 9 Vuelta and 1 Giro participation, and I consider myself fortunate because I have the opportunity to increase these numbers, though have no intention to break any record. I know that the end of my career is not so far but for the moment I want to continue doing what I most like. The coming Tour will be my 23rd participation in grand tours.
Who are the young riders you are most excited about?
At this moment Nairo Quintana is the rider that it seems will be the young riders' reference for the grand tours in the following years. He already has won a Giro, and last year was second at the Tour. He already has the best results in grand tours and he is only 24. I also see a good talent in Bob Jungels. He is only 21, and if he improves a bit in the mountains, he is going to be a contender for the Tour victory in 4-5 years because he is very strong in time trials.
Bob Jungels, Photo credit: Kristof Van Accom, Getty Images
You are close with fellow Trek rider Markel Irizar in particular. How did you two form a bond?
Markel started racing with my brother and they have a good relationship. I met Markel some years ago, during the year he was in treatment to (fight) cancer. After some years, we all -- Markel, my brother and me -- were part in the same team, Euskaltel. Our career has followed the same way in the last years.
What is your relationship like with Irizar?
Markel lives 50 kilometers far from me and normally we train together. We also share training camps in the Pyrenees because each of us (has) a house there and we like to go there to do quality training. We know each other very well and although our personalities are different, our relationship is very good. He is very talkative and my personality is more reserved. He lives with intensity and he doesn't want to lose any second of the life after (overcoming) health problems. We two are very proud to be part of the Trek Factory Racing team.
What are your impressions of the 2014 Tour de France route?
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I like a lot the route of the Tour that is coming. I think that it is for the climbers, but first it is necessary to pass the first difficult week as always. The first week of the Tour will be a little bit different comparing with the last ones. The start in Britain is coming with three difficult stages, and after those will arrive one of the most difficult (stages) in this Tour, the stage of the cobbles of Aremberg. At the end of the first week we have the first mountain finishes in Gerardmer and La Planche des Belles Filles. The finish of the second one is hard, I remember from the Tour of two years ago. At the end of the second week will arrive the decisive Alps stages, and in the last week the Pyrenees. It will be important to be resistant in those mountain stages. One day before (the finish of) the Tour will be the time trial that will decide a lot the general classification.
What is most important to you when combating cobbles?
I have not a lot of experience with the cobbles, but it will be important to take them with confidence. It will be a very nervous stage and we hope to avoid the crashes. I think that we will have the best cyclist at the moment, Fabian [Cancellara], and the best bikes to do it in the best way possible. I hope not to have bad luck.
Which style of climbing do you prefer, the more severe Pyrenees or the longer, more varied Alps?
Normally I feel better in the Alps because they are longer and it is necessarily more resistance, but I know better the roads of the Pyrenees because they are very close to my house. Anyway, if my condition is good I think I can do as well in both.
When do you think you'll be ready to stop cycling?
I know that my career is in the last years because I am 37. For the moment, I have a contract with Trek for the next year and I am not thinking about the end. I am enjoying a lot the cycling in the last years and I am very happy in this team. While the health respects me, I continue enjoying this sport, and if my performance is good I will continue. The day that it is not like this, it will be the day that I will be ready to finish my career.