He answers the journalist's phone call on an afternoon when he is painting a wall of his house in Gatika (Vizcaya). "Housewives have to do everything," says Joane Somarriba (50 years old), the best Spanish cyclist of all time, winner of three Tour de France (2000, 2001 and 2003), two Giros (1999 and 2000) and a World Time Trial (2003). Retired in 2005 after winning a silver medal at the World Time Trial Championship in Madrid, she has been away from the media spotlight. The anonymous life of a champion in a small town.
The Basque was a pioneer in a hostile time for cyclists. "The start was very hard, there was nothing. When I went out with the bike they overtook me and turned my head. 'But you've seen well, it's a girl!' they said. I was on the road and they were shouting, 'Go home and scrub, what eggs are you doing here?' Those comments have been suffered by all cyclists of my generation. When I said I wanted to participate in the Tour or the Giro they were surprised. My beginnings were complicated, with 17 or 18 years I trained and did not see results. I tried hard and they made me want to fuck everything. The family helped me a lot."
Joane Somarriba is a pioneer who takes away merits and prefers to go unnoticed. "I retired and focused on family. Soon my first son, Markel, was born, and then came Oinatz and Regin, all three in close court. I turned away from everything. I'm fine being an ordinary person. I'm very shy and I don't want anyone to know about me. When I go around and they recognize me, I say, 'Oh, Holy God.'"
More than 20 years ago, Joane was on podiums in a wasteland. "Everything was different then. It enriches me a lot to see how the situation of girls has changed. Now they have means, races and teams. It's tremendous. They no longer have the need to leave their country. I had to go to Italy. Now they have everything here and they can compete with all the dignity in the world, which is what's important. I'm glad they run on an equal footing, with almost the same infrastructure as the men's teams, and that they have decent wages."
Surely you feel healthy envy, because now they have their needs covered. Envy of salaries, of the means. It is a luxury that they can run in the best races in the world, that they have all the facilities so that they can give everything. We had to beg, almost crawl to run. In the beginning, there were six or seven runners and we only had one masseur, and if you had a masseur you could not have a mechanic. There was a big gap with the men. You went to Italy and of what they promised you they were going to pay you, half of half. You didn't have an endorsement, that's why I say begging. I won the Giro and the Tour and I didn't see a penny. The teams spent what they had and then didn't get paid. Things have changed for the better and I am proud that it has been so. So he barely made any money. Not in Italy. There they were crazy. The humane treatment was good, I grew a lot as a runner, I was Fabiana Luperini's partner, but it was not positive economically. Then I decided to end my sporting life at home and it went better.
Spanish women's cycling is going through a flourishing era. Movistar occupies stellar positions in the international ranking. Dutchwoman Annemiek van Vleuten is the star. His contract with the telephone team ends this year and he receives about 250,000 euros per year. The minimum salary of the runners who militate in the elephant squadcould be around 32,000 euros per year. From next year, all Spanish cyclists will have a minimum wage and contribute to Social Security. Companies that invest in women's sports will have tax benefits from the Universo Mujer program.
Joane Somarriba now enjoys watching Van Vleuten, Mavi García or Sheyla Gutiérrez on television, but she sees everything from a distance: "I lead a very different life to the one I had as a cyclist. I was good at what I did and enjoyed it very much. All the experiences I went through taught me to improve myself and grow as athletes and as a person. Elite sport increased my constant desire to excel. Allthis has helped me to cope with Crohn's disease, which affected me from the third pregnancy and occasionally causes me a strong intestinal inflammation. It's a congenital disease, my father also had it."
"This disease," continues the former cyclist from Biscay, "conditions me, but I have not taken that circumstance as something negative. In the end, you have to push forward and realize that there are many people who are worse off. This disease has touched me and has taught me to live day to day. You know you're vulnerable. It is a disease that does not warn you, you are well and suddenly it reappears. They are outbreaks and for some of them I have been admitted to a hospital for two months. Now I'm on immunosuppressant treatment, I'm fine. All this makes you get away from social life a bit. If to me, by my way of being, it was already difficult for me to relate and I already came with that serial defect, then with this disease much more. Now you shut yourself up more in yourself... I'm from the north, very closed."
Somarriba, who was named Best Spanish Athlete in 2003, flees from notoriety. He has received some offers to comment on races, but has turned them down. He barely gives interviews. His last major public contribution was in 2005 with the publication of his book Joane Somarriba. Sacrifice and glory of the best Spanish cyclist, pioneer in a world of men (La Esfera de los Libros), written in collaboration with journalist Jon Rivas. Born in Gernika, she lives in Gatika, a town of just over 1,600 inhabitants in Biscay, a couple of kilometers from Mungia. She is fully devoted to her family. She married Ramontxu González Arrieta, former cyclist, good climber, teammate of Miguel Indurain at Banesto and former Spanish women's cycling coach. In the garage of his house there are a dozen bicycles. His three children practice cycling. The eldest, Markel (16 years old), competes and points good conditions. "Markel loves to climb ports, the harder the better. He is a little bird, now he has also given for cyclocross. None of us demand anything from them in cycling, we do not want them to be overwhelmed with the weight of surnames. The important thing is that they enjoy and that they study. I accompany them to the races and I get nervous because I see dangers everywhere. The same thing happens to me as it did to my mother when I was running," says Joane.
"Cycling has been my life, I still go cycling, but I only do it to enjoy. If it's raining or cold I stay at home. If I were born again I would do the same thing I have always done. Since I was a child I wanted to ride the Tour de France, something that seemed impossible then. I insisted on it and I got it. I was fortunate that my family always encouraged me. My father was a sailor, when he stopped sailing he opened, together with my mother, a restaurant. He loved cycling, my sisters and I would take us to the bike shops and say, 'What bike do you want?'"
The best Spanish rider of all time, in addition to her successes in the Tour and the Giro, participated in three Olympic Games (Atlanta, Sydney and Athens). He does not feel longing for the past. She is happy with her family in Gatika: "I stopped racing after the World Cup in Madrid and stayed at home. I have dedicated myself to taking care of my children and that has been a great luck. It's the best thing that ever happened to me, much better than winning the medals. Although, it is true, they give more and more war. Taking care of children is like winning a Tour, you have to be very consistent and patient, because children do not come with a manual under their arm. Well, that's what I'm doing now. I'm very simple." Word of pioneer champion.
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