By Jean-François Quénet
Eric Berthou of RAGT who recently finished 6th in the Tour de l'Avenir, will be the fourth Frenchman picked by Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne for the two coming seasons. He reached an agreement early this week with the Spanish team now also sponsored by a French bank.
The former Banesto team has had a long history of French riders since Dominique Arnaud, Franck Pineau, Stéphane Guay and Marc Gomez joined Reynolds in the mid-80's. After working as a domestique for Bernard Hinault, Arnaud also helped Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain to win the Tour de France. He welcomed on board a young French hope called Armand De Las Cuevas, also hailing from the Bordeaux area, close to the Spanish border, in 1989. When the team became Banesto, Jean-François Bernard and Fabrice Philipot rode together with Arnaud and De Las Cuevas. In 1993, they had five Frenchmen with the addition of Gérard Rué and Stéphane Heulot to the trio Bernard-Philipot-De Las Cuevas after Arnaud's retirement. In the mid-90's, Thomas Davy and Damien Nazon also rode for Banesto, which makes a total of 11 French riders under the guidance of José Miguel Echavarri and Eusebio Unzue in the past. But for the last six years, there was no Frenchman on that side.
The inclusion of French bank Caisse d'Epargne as a co-sponsor for now and as the title sponsor from the 2006 Tour de France onwards has brought some French flavour back in the squad that has kept the same management for 20 years. Florent Brard from Agritubel, Nicolas Portal recruited at Ag2r and neo-pro Mathieu Perget of VC Roubaix will share the new adventure with Berthou, 25, a Breton cyclist who started his pro career with Team Barloworld at the 2003 Tour of Egypt. He's no stranger to foreign teams.
"Some people told me I was crazy to join a South African new team but I don't regret it," he said. "It's been the starting ramp of my career." For the last two years, Berthou rode for RAGT and won a stage in Paris-Corrèze in 2004 before facing some physical problems. "To join Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne is a more exciting challenge for me than racing for any other French team," he added. "If I had been able to chose which team to ride for, it would have been that one."
Berthou is the fourth rider from RAGT - a team folding at the end of this season - to join the Pro Tour after Sébastien Minard (Cofidis), Yoann Le Boulanger (Bouygues Telecom) and Olivier Kaisen (Davitamon-Lotto).