Somarriba Welcomes Golden Age of Women’s Cycling

Basque rider, Joane Somarriba is amongst the sport’s greatest all-time legends, with a palmarés featuring an ITT World Championship and several top-tier stage races. Now an advisor to and ambassador for the Laboral Kutxa-Fundación Euskadi team, Joane will attend La Vuelta Femenina 24 by in a different capacity than her racing days and admits – “I would have loved to take part as a rider!”

During her career and months shy of turning 20, Joane Somarriba, who was born in Gernika and hails from Sopelana, found herself in hospital, sitting on a chair, nearly unable to move due to a hernia on her lower back. The doctor put a box of tissues on the table between himself and his patient, and proceeded to share his assessment of the injury – it would be impossible for Joane to ever ride a bike again. That moment could have been the end of everything, yet this Basque champion managed to overcome the injury by living with it and went on to become one of the best cyclists in history. “That doctor is still my friend to this day,” she said, “and sometimes says: ‘Good thing I was wrong and you are stubborn…!’”

Good thing, indeed. Without Joane Somarriba, cycling would have missed an athlete who has become a legend to an extent that few riders in women’s cycling have attained. Two overall victories in the Giro Donne and three in the Grande Boucle, France’s biggest two-week event at the time, show her stage-racing prowess. The ITT World Championship she won in 2003 proves her rainbow-worthy individual strength.

Once Joane drew her career to a close in 2006, Somarriba completely stepped away from the competitive side of the sport. “Even if I never stopped following cycling because I just love it too much, I chose to take a bow and disappear from the spotlight.” Joane has now returned to the scene this season with Fundación Euskadi’s Laboral Kutxa team, where she acts as both an ambassador and a sporting advisor to the riders. “I enjoy sharing my experience with the younger girls,” she says. 

Jane also shares that wealth of experience here:

What was it like to be a rider back in your day?

Women’s cycling had always been secondary to men’s. We raced and nobody cared about the results. This was particularly poignant for me when I took part in the 1996 Giro Donne with the Spanish national team and finished 4th overall. I travelled home on cloud nine, because it was a success for a ‘girl’ like me, especially after dealing with a career-threatening back injury such as the one I had. When I made it to Spain, no one had heard of my performance – just a few friends and neighbours. It hurt me because I had seen how much recognition male riders got and I felt it was unfair that my feat at the Giro had gone unnoticed. Even if I had experienced before how any achievement by a woman was neglected while a man’s was glorified, this made me wonder whether all my effort made sense or not.

What would have meant for you to be able to participate in a race like La Vuelta Femenina by

I would have loved to do it. Had this event existed in my time, my dream as a rider would have been to win all three big national stage races – the Grand Tours of Italy, France and Spain. I enjoyed last year’s edition a lot and am very excited about the 2024 one. It’s going to be a beautiful Vuelta as it has a well-balanced route with changes for every type of rider – sprinters, climbers, breakaway specialists… I wish I could have entered a race like this one in Spain, with a team time trial, several uphill finishes like Fuerte Rapitán and a proper, all-out mountain stage to settle things in Madrid. And, on top of that, the field is going to be amazing. SD Worx was a dominating force in 2023, but this season we have already witnessed teams like Lidl-Trek get the better of them.

How are you going to follow La Vuelta Femenina 24 by

From up close, as I will be working with Laboral Kutxa! Our team leader Ane Santesteban is very excited about the race, as she is approaching it in excellent shape. She was up there already last year, and we are pretty sure she can deliver a pretty nice performance in this upcoming edition.

Did this lack of recognition translate to the money side, too?

I didn’t receive any money – not even a minimum allowance to go buy a new tyre after a puncture. It was frustrating. I was not even thinking of earning a salary. I just wanted to be able to build on my sporting career. Luckily, my generation of Spanish riders was filled with stubbornness and fighting spirit. I was particularly blessed to be called on board by an Italian professional team following that 4th place in the Giro… But many colleagues had to give up at a certain age at which they had to prioritise university, or just find a day job. The talent was there – the support wasn’t.

Is it easier to be a professional rider now than during your sporting career?

Yes. I’d say it’s still difficult, but everything has taken a turn for the best in women’s cycling. Visibility is key, as anything society can’t watch is easily overseen. The level of support that current riders enjoy is excellent. It’s very rewarding for those of us who had to fight so much while having much less. It inspires certain level of enviousness in me, but a healthy one of course. Women’s cycling is living a golden age!

Would you have liked to be a professional rider now, rather than in your time?

Yes, I would. Current pro riders ought to enjoy this platform. They are very lucky when it comes to teams, races, support, audience, media… Nevertheless, I did enjoy my time in cycling and believe I was a privileged one amongst my peers.

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