Imanol Erviti - a timeless classic

Imanol Erviti has taken part in more editions of the Tour of Flanders and Paris- Roubaix than any other rider current rider – 17 times in each race. The Navarran is one of the most reliable domestiques in the peloton and he has been in the WorldTour since the series’ inception in 2005. Eighteen years as a pro have taught him that the mind plays an important role in cycling, he explains to Rouleur

After a professional career with Movistar spanning 19 years, Imanol Erviti announced in October that he would retire from cycling, closing this chapter of his career. In Issue 118 of Rouleur, the Classics Issue, VOLATA editor Olga Àbalos spoke to Erviti about his impressive career and a changing peloton. 

How is life in Movistar since Alejandro Valverde retired?

Actually, we’ve still had no time to miss him very much. He was training with us and also he was with the team during Opening Weekend, in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne, where there was tension because of the wind, several crashes, a crash in the feed zone, then a breakaway of 48 cyclists, so bye bye. We didn’t see them again until the finish line. My goodness! The truth is that this makes you angry, but, well, the Classics have these things. They are special. It’s a month full of those special races that you love and that you can come to hate while you’re racing, but as soon as they finish you can’t wait for another year to come around.

The Classics are tough....

But they are beautiful. And then the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are two old-fashioned and brutal cycling races.

In your career there is almost a permanent block in every season, which is the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège...

It’s true, I’ve raced them almost every year. But it’s mainly because, and maybe this sounds not very attractive, when I arrived in the team in 2005, there was very little tradition of racing these races and the cyclists...

They didn’t want to go?

Yes. Well, five of them went out of obligation. Classics are very, very demanding races, very different, very thankless. However, if you get something, they give you a lot. And those of us in the team who were big and heavy, like me, were sent there to try our luck. Whether you liked it or not, you had to go. Things were like that in the past, but now it’s changing and it’s not hard to complete the lineup for these races any more.

In Movistar, there are young riders like Iván García Cortina or Alex Aranburu, who are good for these one-day races...

Indeed, and they have very good physical characteristics for them. They know how to position themselves very well and they are very good at short efforts. Maybe they are a bit different to me, because I’m more of an endurance rider and they are more explosive, which are very good characteristics for these races. I’m sure my experience can contribute something to them, to tell them when they can’t be relaxed and things like that.

Do you like dealing with younger people?

Yes, they convey you their motivation and the excitement they have and somehow you rekindle those moments. Some people are more receptive and ask you for more advice and you enjoy it and see that they put it into practice. Helping them a little along the path is comforting.

Is this new motivation to still be a professional?

Yes. You have to love cycling and stay motivated, otherwise you’d be f*cked. At the end, you are already a veteran and you have formed an opinion of things, but right now for the youngsters, in this era where data is everything, it is difficult. When you are a neo pro, you like the dynamics because it seems to you that you are more professional dealing with all those numbers and that you get more out of it, but in the end, it’s a very hard lifestyle. There are many 24-year-olds who have given up cycling. You wake up, upload to the cloud how you’ve slept. Then, weigh yourself and upload it, then you eat breakfast weighing the food, put it in an app and have it uploaded. You train, and the same. You weigh yourself again, you eat, you weigh it and on and on. When you’re a neo, it’s an incredible motivation, because you feel you’re acting as a pro. In cycling, numbers are super impor- tant but they are not the only thing. Human beings are not just numbers.

How important is the role of the mind?

The mind is very important. When things don’t go as you planned, when you don’t perform, when you’re not positioned in the race where you should be, when you start to get upset, you start to feel that discipline is a burden, and if you’re a young person, maybe you don’t have the personality to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to rest. I’m going to do it differently for a while. I’m going to do it my own way now.’ The teams squeeze all the technical options so they can have all the data, because they want to have more control to know how you are. It’s a hard time for the mind.

You have sometimes said that you felt fortunate to have experienced cycling without all the data.

I’m glad to have been able to live the process. Back then it was very different. You had a hard ride, you went out, you pushed yourself... You came home tired and had the feeling that you had trained well. But I also enjoyed learning a lot. I remember I had an SRM [power meter], with a cable. I think I was the first in the team to use it at that time, when we were Caisse d’Epargne. I bought it myself. Now everything is much more measured, more standardised, protocolised, much more professionalised if you want, but I was lucky to have that freedom, because at the moment you have to choose your training route depending on the efforts you have to do and sometimes that’s not very pleasant.

According to the stats, you’re the active rider who’s raced the most times in both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders right now. You raced them both 17 times.

Well, I might be. But in the peloton they are very young now and they’ll surpass me. Eddy Merckx raced De Ronde 15 times. So did Johan Museeuw... Maybe back then sport careers used to be shorter, but I would happily race less and have half of their victories!

Knowing the Classics so well, do you have a clear strategy of how Flanders should be won?

I must say that in those 17 editions, the first few times were a bit like, ‘Oh, what’s going on? What’s going on?’ You didn’t know why there were brutal accelerations kilometres before the first pass through Oude Kwaremont, for instance. Then you get on to the Muur in 60th position and you’re done. You had to wait a year to come back and try it again. You would say to yourself, ‘Wow, next year, they won’t catch me out here.’ Then you made an effort, you fixed that, you went ahead, but maybe 15 kilometres later, in another place you are behind, the wind cuts the group and that’s it. Until the next year.

Besides this frustration, did you end up enjoying them?

You like them and you hate them. And I love them when I have good legs above all. But I’ve also had a lot of unpleasantness, because I’ve tried to get there in shape and it’s the time of year when I have the worst time with allergies. I can’t say that I’ve had it every year, but most times, that week of Flanders and Roubaix in Belgium and in that part of Europe there is something that gives me more allergies. And for many years it has been the worst allergy week of the whole year. So let’s say that I have had the opportunity to do something impor- tant, but also the opportunity to express myself at my real level less often. There have been many times when I came back with a lot of frustration. For example, when the races happened in October in 2021, I arrived in good form after La Vuelta and I could be in the good breakaway at Roubaix, but I crashed and broke my hand.

However, in 2016, you were top 10 in Flanders and Roubaix...

Indeed, and I think after that, Movistar started giving more importance to those kinds of one-day races. Since then, they’ve given them more weight in the planning. I did notice that.

Have you also seen an evolution when it comes to racing in these Classics?

Definitely, in all of them. And that can also be seen in the first week of a Grand Tour. That mega tension is so brutal – I’ve noticed that. Then once the classification is sorted out, everything calms down. In modern cycling, in short efforts, like a segment of pavé or a climb, like a two-kilometre climb at 10 per cent, if you give a few metres to Tadej Pogačar or Wout Van Aert, you are out. It’s just crazy to get to the front. There’s a lot of risk and tension and the watts have increased quite a lot. No matter what legs you have, if you’re not in a good position, you’re out. And there are riders who shine much less than they could because of this. Nowadays, you have to be able to tolerate more risk, to be able to handle the bike, to ride better, to be able to position yourself.

Would you have liked to win any Spring Classic on the calendar?

Those ones or any race! Winning, wow, that’s beautiful. However, many victories of your teammates, you feel them like they are yours. If you have contributed to them, it’s a very deep feeling.

Is there any special one to remember?

Lots of them. Maybe one of those Liège-Bastogne-Liège editions won by Alejandro Valverde in which I have participated. I remember when ‘Arri’ [José Luis Arrieta, former team manager at Movistar], proposed some sporting challenges, the kind that I didn’t know if I was going to be able to fulfil. Like: ‘I need you to do this, and I know you can do it, and that’s why I’m asking you to do it. It’s going to be a brute, but you have to do it.’ For example, he told you to go into the breakaway and stay there until it was under control, or when you have the mission to leave Alejandro in a position going into La Redoute, and while you’re dead, trying to get on your way to the finish line, you listen to the radio and hear that everything is going well, that the rest of the team is doing their jobs, that Alejandro is doing great and he wins. For a gregario like me this is great. You feel very fulfilled.

Your face lights up when you talk about these moments.

Of course, because it’s a lot of effort. In the end, when you’ve got to La Redoute you’ve already done 210 kilometres in which you’ve done most of the work, and with the level there and the quotas you’ve already passed to get to La Redoute, you have to have a very good day for this. The gregario’s job is funny, because your job can be very good or less good depending if your leader finishes it off. It’s not as if your work was worse, but it can be even better because it has more impact, because something has been achieved. You can also feel fulfilled at other times, like in decisions that you have to make on the bike, when they are accepted and can give an advantage to your leader. Or when you have an idea and you are stubborn about it, and then it turns out well. That’s all very nice in sport. Or a victory in a Grand Tour. When after 21 days you arrive as a leader in Madrid with Nairo Quintana or Alejandro, that’s great. Or when you are able to get onto a podium. Most people take it as a joke, but for a gregario like me, to get on the podium four times on the Champs-Élysées...

There was a time that people made fun of the fact that Movistar only won the team classification in the Tour.

I know that’s a secondary prize, of course. You try to fight for the big prize, but when you don’t get it, I have the feeling that people are not aware of what it takes to get on the podium on the Champs-Élysées. And for riders like me, who wouldn’t get up there any other way, it’s a privilege to have been there. There are many things that you see that you can’t appreciate from the outside, because they are not easy to convey. There are aspects that are very comforting for people who are not finishers like me. There’s a sentence from Eusebio Unzue that is very true about cycling: it is a team sport in which only one rider wins. Cycling is a very particular sport. The gregarios are very important, because, in the end, a gregario has to give the leader the opportunity to express himself, and without the gregario, the leader often wouldn’t have that opportunity. Therefore, it is a team sport in which only one wins. In other words, cycling is unbalanced in a certain way, compared, for example, to other team sports, such as football, in which the whole team wins. In cycling, the victory has only one name, it is only one who wins. In that sense, it is a thankless sport.

You’ve been a pro for 18 years. Do you think about what will come next when you retire?

Of course, I think about it. But, you know, it will come. When you’re my age, you only want to enjoy yourself, so you’re not worried any more about living in retirement with that worry. I have seen some colleagues who lived it that way and they suffered, because cycling means big dedication and when you cut it, it’s a process that requires many changes, mentally, physically... But this is a period of life and I think that if you have internalised that, it helps you put it into perspective. I don’t want to have a bad time with it. I’ve been lucky enough to have a long career and so I want to enjoy it, and whatever comes, I’ll take it easy.

Will you go year by year?

That’s it, year by year. Let’s see if this one isn’t enough already! It may be this one. But I don’t worry. Let’s enjoy it as if it were the last one, that’s what’s important.

You are very calm about this issue.

Well, not always. But most of the time I’m a calm person. That’s what I think my colleagues like about me. When they are all nervous and tense, I give them a bit of tranquillity, or that’s what they tell me. To be honest I’m not really aware that I’m doing anything in particular, but they say so. I think there are many ways to add up to a team and within the teams there are many people who may not win but who are going to have a lot of value. They are very valid and the things they contribute are worthwhile.

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