News feature, January 24, 2006
Bigger and better in 2006 - and with a very different jersey - Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears is shaping up to be a solid contender for the grand tours this season. Tim Maloney reports from Paris, France.
At a deluxe Parisian hotel just a stone's throw from ground zero for luxury and chic, le Place Vendome, the 2006 edition of Team Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears was presented formally to the media on Monday, January 23. Formerly known as Illes Balears, now second sponsor Caisse d'Epargne has stepped up its commitment to the squad directed by team general manager José Miguel Echavarri and thus Caisse d'Epargne will be a title sponsor for five seasons through 2010, currently the longest term contract in pro cycling.
Mr. Charles Milhaud, a member of the board of directors of the giant French savings bank, explained that his organization had been involved with many different sponsoring activities, including the Coupe de France football series, but were attracted to cycling because "the teams are identified themselves by the name of the title sponsor, something that we find is a very efficient way to communicate."
Starting his 26th year of team management, José Miguel Echavarri is clearly pleased to once again have a large, powerful sponsor behind his organization for the future, as he did for many years with the Banesto team. Echavarri and his right hand man Francis Lafargue understand how to work with a major sponsor like Caisse d'Epargne as well as his mission of winning bike races. "I am happy to say that we have the pleasure and honour to have a team for our riders once again. But it's not important which riders win, but how they win. And we are happy to work with Caisse d'Epargne because they are a sponsor that respects this sense of sporting ethics." And clearly Caisse d'Epargne wants a winning team, as they have opened up their wallet for 2006, hiring not only some good young French riders, but bringing on board top guns like Oscar Pereiro, Tino Zaballa and making sure superstar Alejandro Valverde is surrounded by the right mix of riders on the 28 rider team.
25 year old Valverde looks to be destined for big things in 2006, as the rider from Murcia will target a big ride in the Tour de France as a primary goal. That stated, Valverde will have a different program this season to last years, where he started fast with a win in the Mallorca Challenge, a stage win and second overall in Paris-Nice. "This year, I'll have a change in the way I do things," Valverde told Cyclingnews. "Sure, I'll start again in Mallorca and then ride Murcia, but I'll ride more classics this season, then Pais Vasco. After that, I'll have a break, come back for the Dauphiné Libéré and then the Tour de France."
When we asked Valverde how he saw the first post-Armstrong era Tour this season, his response wasn't surprising. "Oh, this Tour will be different from the last Tours. It should be more open, not just for me but for a lot of riders. And it will be more complicated and difficult at the Tour with the absence of Armstrong."
Newcomer from Phonak Oscar Pereiro Sio is an aggressive, attacking rider that will be looking to have plenty of podium places in 2006 for Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears. "I really want to have a good year in 2006," explained Pereiro. "I've just been on this team one month, but so far it's been a good fit for me." Alongside the powerfully built Pereiro was gigantic (1m90cm) Russian Vladimir Karpets. Seventh at last year's Giro d'Italia, the 25 year-old Karpets was expected to do big things at the Tour de France, but was only 50th after riding into Paris as Best Young Rider in 2004. The usually enigmatic, stone-faced Russian cracked a rare smile when asked if he was looking for a comeback at the Tour this year. "Yes, the Tour didn't go so well for me last year, so I'm looking for a better performance in 2006 there."
With four French riders on board for 2006, and perhaps more to come in the future, Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears is looking to support French cycling to some extent. 26 year old Nicolas Portal from Auch is good up and coming French rider who came over from Ag2r, and likes what he sees at his new squad. "For me, it's special to be on this team. I was inspired to start cycling by seeing Miguel Indurain in the Tour de France and this team has that heritage. Plus we have a really strong team with Valverde, so it will be good to be here."
Other riders on Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears who should make a mark in 2006 are TT ace Ivan Gutierrez, classy climber Joaquin Rodriguez, Pablo Lastras and rapid Russians like speedy sprinter Alexei Markov and talented young all-rounder Vladimir Efimkin. Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears will ride Pinarello bicycles in 2006 and after the Paris presentation, the entire group flew to Mallorca for a training camp before their first race of the season at the Mallorca Challenge from February 5-9.