Although Phonak team manager John Lelangue gave his three leaders the option of an early release in light of the team's uncertain future beyond 2006, 32 year-old Colombian Santiago Botero has been the first to announce his return in Phonak colours for next year.
"Because it is still open at the moment who will be our main sponsor, we wanted to give the pros a clear signal that we didn't want to stand in the way of their accepting a multi-year offer from another team," said Lelangue in a team statement, although clearly very happy at Botero's decision.
Regardless of whether Phonak continues sponsoring the team, the former Deputy Competition Director of ASO is confident that ARcycling, whom he manages, will be able to put together an equally competitive team in future to ensure their existence past 2006. "What our team has done up to now is impressive. Of course, we want to be as far ahead at the end of the season as possible. That would also be a very motivating starting position for everyone involved and for possible sponsors," he said.
While Floyd Landis and Oscar Pereiro will make their future known within the coming days, Lelangue believes the 2006 line-up will have a better balance than what currently exists. At present, there are 21 riders under contract with ARcycling for next year, with further negotiations underway in order to reach the ProTour-stipulated minimum number of 25 riders. The possible departure of Pereiro or Landis would be offset by new recruits.
"With Axel Merckx and Koos Moerenhout the team is getting two experienced riders, and with the young pros Luis Fernandez Oliveira and Florian Stalder, we're giving two big talents a chance to get a foothold in professional cycling," said Lelangue.
The 2006 Phonak Cycling Team (as of September 1, 2005, listed by nationality):
Aurélien Clerc (SUI), Martin Elmiger (SUI), Gregory Rast (SUI), Johann Tschopp (SUI), Alexandre Moos (SUI), Sascha Urweider (SUI), Steve Zampieri (SUI), Florian Stalder (SUI) (new), Axel Merckx (BEL) (new), Koos Moerenhout (HOL) (new), Luis Fernandez Oliveira (SP) (new), Santos Gonzalez (SP), José Enrique Gutierrez (SP), Ignacio Gutierrez (SP), Miguel Martin Perdiguero (SP), Santiago Botero (COL), Victor Hugo Peña (COL), Bert Grabsch (GER), Nicolas Jalabert (FRA), Uros Murn (SLO), Robert Hunter (RSA).