News feature, January 11, 2007
The squirrel is a patient animal. It relentlessly accumulates food throughout the year, one nut after the other, to have its belly full during winter and come back in spring with enough energy left to be hungry for more... But what does a squirrel have to do with pro cycling? Well, the small rodent is Caisse d'Epargne's logo and mascot, and not without reason.
The French bank group is not a friend of short-term investments, at least not in its sports sponsorships. When the savings conglomerate started to back the Spanish team managed by Eusebio Unzué in 2005, it right away decided to do this for a full six years to complete the sponsorship programmes it already had in French athletics, skiing and soccer. Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner attended the team's presentation on Wednesday, January 9 at the bank's headquarters in downtown Paris.
The pro cycling team Caisse d'Epargne reflects the mentality of a steadiness. This year's squad is set to repeat its successful 2007 formula and collect top race results throughout the whole season, similar to the above mentioned furry forest inhabitant. "Our top goals this season are the Tour de France, stage races and the Olympics," announced the outfit's general manager Eusebio Unzué at the 2008 team presentation in the glass, marble and steel palace of the French banking giant right beside the Seine River.
Indeed, this philosophy fulfilled the squad's objectives last season, already. Thirty victories by nine different riders and many top placings from February until September helped the team finish third in the ProTour rankings and win the combined team classification for the second consecutive time. Achievements confirmed the rightfulness of the sponsorship, according to Caisse d'Epargne president Charles Milhaud. "I'm convinced that, with the victory of Oscar Pereiro in the 2006 Tour de France and the solid performances obtained in 2007, our team will again hold its colours high this year," the faithful cycling enthusiast said in his speech.
So, true to the saying "Never change a winning team", the team managed by Echavarri's Abarca Sports company chose to only slightly modify its composition for the upcoming season. Eight new riders joined the squad, amongst which four Frenchmen: Anthony Charteau, Arnaud Coyot, Mathieu Drujon and Fabien Patanchon. Two Colombians joined the team - Marlon Perez and the young talent Rigoberto Uran - alongside Spanish rouleur Luis Pasamontes and Venezuelan climber Jose Rujano.
The leaders of the team remain the same: Alejandro Valverde, Oscar Pereiro and Vladimir Karpets, only to name the most famous ones. With Valverde and Karpets, Caisse d'Epargne had two riders in the Top 10 of the UCI rankings last year. And looking at the final general classification of the 2007 Tour de France, the team boasted four riders in the Top 15 (Valverde, Pereiro, Karpets and David Arroyo).
With such striking power, the team rightfully targets the highest crown of the sport: the yellow jersey. Both Valverde and Pereiro will aim for a podium placing in the Tour de France, with the former having slightly more chances of success according to the second general manager Euzebio Unzué. "I think Valverde can try to get on the Tour de France podium," Unzué told Cyclingnews after the official presentation. "I believe so even more because at this point, there is no [Lance] Armstrong or another rider who dominates the Tour on a level distinctly above his rivals. And as there is such a small margin between the top contenders; I believe Valverde could even win the Tour!"
The rider himself preferred to play things down a bit, knowing his competitors. "The Tour de France is always a complicated race, but I know I have some options to do better than in 2007 [when he finished 6th - ed.]," Valverde said. "Maybe I can make it on the podium. In any case I'm determined to give my very best and improve!"
Pereiro, who was officially made 2006 Tour de France winner only 14 months after the event (a "huge relief" according to him), hopes to be back to his full capacities after a year overshadowed by too many uncertainties. "In 2007, my head was simply out of focus," he explained. "I will do the maximum in view of the Tour de France 2008."
But the Tour de France, even if it is the most important, is only one race of a long and challenging calendar. Faithful to its principles of regularity, Caisse d'Epargne wishes to be present throughout the season, also in the French Cup, but more importantly with the aim of winning the ProTour teams classification.
"That is one of our most important objectives," Unzué continued. "We have riders that can win these events and give our squad a top placing in the classification, like Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Jose Joaquin Rojas...riders that can score victories or get good placings throughout the year. There are others, but these three sort of are our specialists as concerns ProTour points. And then there's Oscar (Pereiro), who will get a bigger role in the Ardennes Classics. He will aim at a higher level of performance for the Classics, and be an important asset in our roster for these races."
As regards the Vuelta, Unzué believed he had, again, three cards up his sleeve: "For the team selection, we'll have to see who will be on top form in August, but we hope that Jose Rujano, Oscar Pereiro and Alejandro Valverde will be our team leaders for the Vuelta. We have to take the start with the objective of winning the race."
With Valverde and Pereiro scheduled to double up two Grand Tours in 2008 and expected to score stage wins as well as succeed in the overall classification of these three-week races, Caisse d'Epargne has set high goals for its leaders. But other riders will also do the double: "Karpets will do Giro-Tour, Rujano Giro-Vuelta, Zandio will do Tour and Vuelta, Garcia Acosta too. There are eight or nine riders who will be doing two Grand Tours this season," added Unzué.
All the while, Caisse d'Epargne will remain true to its anti-doping policy. Looking back at last season, Jose Miguel Echavarri, general manager of the team, doesn't want any rumours repeated. "2007 was an agitated season for the whole cycling community, but it triggered the creation of the biological passport which I hope will bring real solutions in the fight against doping, and not only within cycling," the Spaniard said.
And what about the French sponsor of the Spanish team? It continues to be a dedicated supporter of Abarca Sports, the team's management company, and cycling as a whole. "Certainly, cycling today is having a difficult time," said Milhaud. "But the values of the sport - work, dedication and courage - are shared within our company, which is why we continue our engagement. Doping does not erase these values which we hold dear."
The 2008 Caisse d'Epargne team: David Arroyo, Anthony Charteau (Fra), Arnaud Coyot (Fra), Mathieu Drujon (Fra), Imanol Erviti, Txente García Acosta, Iván Gutiérrez, Joan Horrach, Vladimir Karpets (Rus), Pablo Lastras, David López, Alberto Losada, Luis Pasamontes, Fabien Patanchon (Fra), Oscar Pereiro, Marlón Pérez Arango (Col), Fran Pérez, Mathieu Perget (Fra), Nicolas Portal (Fra), Joaquím Rodríguez, José Joaquín Rojas, José Rujano (Ven), Luis León Sánchez, Rigoberto Uran (Col), Alejandro Valverde and Xabier Zandio.
A full listing of the team can be found on the Cyclingnewsteams database.