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UCI status: Professional Continental team Team Debut: 2003 Top riders: Igor Astarloa (2003 World...
When it was announced that Igor Astarloa was signing for a non-ProTour team in 2005, some within the sport understandably saw this as a step backwards for the former world champion. However, as Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes found out, talk to John Robertson and Christian Andersen of Team Barloworld-Valsir and it is apparent that this team has big plans for the future. This season, they are hoping that having established names such as Astarloa and double Vuelta King of the Mountains Felix Cardenas will secure wild card invitations to some ProTour races, with Classics and at least one Grand Tour ride as important objectives.
Under Robertson's three year plan, a good showing this season combined with the financial backing already secured under the team's current sponsors will form the basis for a ProTour licence bid for the 2006 season. The increase in budget and prestige will bring more big names into the team, while also helping to attain his big ambition; namely, to see his squad take part in the Tour de France inside the next two to three years.
In terms of philosophies, Robertson intends to model Barloworld-Valsir somewhat along the lines of the US Postal/Discovery Channel and CSC teams, favouring what he says is the 'new, innovative approach' rather than the old-style favoured by many traditional teams. Of course, with people like ex-Gewiss manager Emanuele Bombini and former CSC director Christian Andersen on board there is scope for the best of both worlds to be incorporated; this, plus the team's blend of nationalities, languages and ages should make for an interesting mix.
Barloworld-Valsir also retains the core of last year's team, with South African names such as Tiaan Kannemeyer, Ryan Cox, Jock Green and David George returning and aiming big. The notion of riding the Tour is important to each of them and, should it happen, would be a huge boost to South African cycling.
Cyclingnews: The team has expanded, increasing from 15 to 25 riders and including a couple of big names. How did the expansion come about?
John Robertson: Well, the biggest factor in the expansion was the acquisition of the new co-sponsor Valsir, who signed a two-year contract with the team. It has made a big difference and adds a lot of value. It allows us to secure bigger riders.
CN: What are the changes compared to last year's team?
JR: I don't think you can even compare us to last year's team. Last year we had 16 riders, now we have 25. It is a much bigger structure this year. We have four directeurs sportifs. At the management level we have Emanuele Bombini as assistant manager - he has a number of years experience in Italy. It is a much bigger team. The biggest thing is that everything is just happening so quickly at the moment. It is hard to take it all in.
CN: How did the Barloworld backing originally materialise?
JR: I had reached the point in South Africa where I had won the national championships four years running with my riders. I couldn't progress any further in South Africa, so my next step was to take the core group of South African riders to Europe, which at the time people told me I couldn't do.
I approached a number of companies and, in a roundabout way I approached a subsidiary company of Barloworld, one of their divisions. Once I realised how big they really were I put everything on the table and said 'let's put together a five-year plan. I believe you can have a South African team in the Tour de France in four to five years. It is just a case of believing in it and getting the right people. That was halfway through 2002 so it is under three years ago.'
CN: Things have progressed steadily in that time. Christian (Andersen) has joined from Team CSC, which is a big plus. How did that come about?
JR: I was put in contact with Christian by one of my riders, Stefan Adamsson. I have a lot of respect for him as I think he learned a lot when he worked on T-Mobile with Jan Ullrich. He said to me that Christian Andersen from CSC was looking for something new in the future. I have always respected CSC and the way they work. They are one of the real innovative teams out there and they do a lot of things on a relatively small budget. So it is a good acquisition to get somebody who is working in the same direction as I would be.
CN: Turning to Christian, have you brought some of those philosophies to the team?
Christian Andersen: Of course. When you have been on a team like CSC you see all the things that work, and you can bring some of that with you.
CN: So what will you bring to Team Barloworld-Valsir from CSC?
CA: It is the way to take care of the riders, the way to manage our team. To be a European team, an international team is quite important for the future.
CN: You have got Igor Astarloa on board, which is big news. What does his signing do for the team?
JR: In terms of the image and profile of the team it takes us to a whole new level. I think the biggest thing for a professional team is signing that first big name. Once you have that I think the team has respect and other big riders start looking at the team, saying 'hey, that is the way to go, the team has a good future and is going in the right direction.' So it is simplifying for us the way to move forward.
In terms of marketing, again it has made things a lot easier. Everybody is now looking at the team and saying, ‘hey, if they can sign a rider like Igor Astarloa they definitely have a good future.'
CN: And I guess that will also be useful in getting invites to ProTour events and, ultimately, in chasing a ProTour licence?
JR: Definitely. It is going to make securing invites to the big races far easier. Also it is important for us that we have a good Spanish racing programme; Barloworld has big business interests in Spain. So it has simplified a lot of things for us.
CN: Christian, it is early days but what are your first impressions of Igor (Astarloa)?
CA: Good, very good. I will say that it was the same as when Laurent Jalabert came to Team CSC. When he came there he was a hero as Igor is here. I think that has a very good effect.
CN: I guess when Jalabert came to Team CSC his presence increased confidence within the squad and also their expectations of themselves...
CA: They are not similar but their mentality is similar. They are quiet, easy to talk with, really good people inside. All the riders will listen to these kind of people, and so it is important for our team as the 24 other riders can learn a lot from him.
CN: John, you obviously know the guys who have been on the team for years. Have you noticed the effect on them, or is it too soon to ask?
JR: It is difficult for me to say at this stage because I have only been on this training camp for three or four days. But in terms of the South African riders and back at home, everyone can't believe it. When I started this project it was a very small team and people were skeptical about being able to take a South African team or company to the Tour de France. Now everybody is saying that we have got an ex-world champion, they mean business and are not fooling around.
CN: There seems to be an amalgamation of two teams with several riders coming from Vini Caldirola. There is a sizeable Italian element to the Barloworld-Valsir lineup. How did that come about?
JR: I have had an Italian element since the beginning of last year. When we started the team, we originally started in France for the first year. We had some problems with the language barriers there, but then had a good opportunity to work with Davide Boifava at the beginning of this season. I have always liked Italy - it is a very passionate country and passionate about cycling. If you look on paper, Italy is the best cycling nation in the world. They have more UCI points than anyone else. What better? I have learned a lot in Italy and work with some of the best people in cycling in Italy so it is a good move.
Offhand, there are about five or six riders from Vini Caldirola and we also have some of the staff from the team. One mechanic and three of the soigneurs are ex-Vini Caldirola.
CN: Is that difficult? There are many different languages within the team. Is it a balancing act at this stage to try to merge the two different elements?
JR: There are ten different nationalities on the team. My vision moving forward is to have even more, I would like to have fifteen. I have always respected people no matter what their background or nation is. At the end of the day, Barloworld is one team, despite the different languages.
Yes, there are problems in terms of communication but there is always a way to work around it as long as you are working towards the same goal.
CN: You don't have a ProTour licence but with Igor on board, hopefully you will get some rides in those races. What are your goals for the year?
JR: My primary objective for 2005 is at least one major Grand Tour. Ideally for my sponsor it would be the Vuelta, but in terms of passion in the sport it would be the Giro d'Italia.
CA: For us, the most important thing is to be in one of the big Tours. It is a big step. Before you become part of the ProTour, you have to do a big Tour and then you can see how it is to be there. We can learn and take a lot with us. Hopefully we can get into the ProTour soon.
CN: To get a ProTour licence requires several things, least of which is a budget increase...
JR: Based on the agreement I have with my sponsors, the sponsorship increases incrementally each year. I am also in negotiations with other companies too. But I believe we are on track to be in the ProTour in 2006. I think once you have the money in the bank it is possible. From that end of things, the big objective between now and July is to have a budget in place. Then we can go out there and secure two or three other big names and make an agreement with the UCI.
There are other teams in the sport...there is talk that Fassa Bortolo has only one more season. So I think there are going to be big changes in the sport. Some teams are really being pressurised into becoming ProTour teams, so there are many changes. But the sport should stabilize in time.
CN: Presuming you get a ProTour licence, what are the team's goals for the next three to five years?
JR: When I started this project three years ago my initial objective was to have a team in the Tour de France. I grew up reading magazines on the race and it is a big goal. I haven't thought beyond that. Once we do that I will sit down with my staff and decide what the next objectives should be.
I have always looked on American teams such as 7 Eleven and US Postal as being innovative - with the correct financial backing I believe that I have the ideas to be in the position of having one of the biggest teams in the world in the next three years.
CN: So for you, the Tour could come as soon as next year?
JR: I believe it could be next year. I am certainly putting a lot of pressure on myself to be there next year. It has been a long haul up to now; I have been involved in cycling for eight or nine years and this has been a vision of mine. I want to get there.
CN: It seems pretty exciting...there seems a sense of change this year within the team.
JR: I think with Astarloa, everything has moved up to a whole new level, in terms of the size of the team. A ProTour team has a minimum of 25 riders; we have 25 riders. In terms of structure we are not far off being a ProTour team already. I think this year is going to be a good learning curve for us. We are going to make some mistakes but by making those and learning from them, we are going to be in a position to have a successful ProTour team in 2006.
CN: You say a Grand Tour ride this year is important. What will the tactic of the team be to get a ride?
JR: We will do whatever we can. In the past week we have registered with the Italian federation as an Italian team in order to improve our chances. Emanuele Bombini has a very close relationship with the organisers of the Giro d'Italia and Valsir will also be involved in sponsorship of the race. So from that end of things it is good. There is always a political game to be played in cycling as well.
CN: Christian, what is your impression of the team so far?
CA: There were a lot of things that were different from CSC, but there are also a lot of good things. With a mixture of the best elements I think we can bring things to a good level.
CN: Finally, John, you come from South Africa. How important for South African cycling, if and when the team gets a ProTour licence and gets a Tour ride?
JR: I think in terms of raising public awareness in South Africa, it is going to make a huge difference to the sport. Cycling is a popular sport in South Africa at fun ride or Gran Fondo level but the Tour de France is the ultimate on a competitive level, where you see the likes of Lance Armstrong riding.
For me, it is also important in terms of my country. I have always believed that South Africans can do anything just as well as anybody else, so to put a South African team and my country on the map in one of the greatest sporting events in the world is a big, big goal.