Saur-Sojasun manager Stéphane Heulot has said that his team is worthy of an entry into the 2011 Tour de France. The former maillot jaune also claimed that his team’s transfer negotiations with Thomas Voeckler fell through because of the French champion’s salary requests.
“I can’t claim to be in competition [for a Tour de France invitation] with a team like Vacansoleil, which doesn’t share our philosophy,” Heulot told L’Équipe. “But with Jérome Coppel, we are fortunate to have a French rider who is representative of the future of stage racing. It’s food for thought.”
Coppel impressed this season with 9th place at Paris-Nice and 5th at the Criterium du Dauphiné, while the sprint duo of Jimmy Casper and Jimmy Engoulvent have also contributed handsomely to the team’s haul of 28 victories in 2010. However, Heulot has been frustrated by his team’s limited opportunities to race at the highest level.
“Financially, Tour de France participation is vital,” Heulot explained. “If we are not there in 2011, it will make us reconsider a lot of perspectives. We’ve made the effort to expand to being a team of 23 riders with a better race programme, but if we’re never given our chance, we can never be evaluated at our true level.”
Saur-Sojasun were in talks with Thomas Voeckler when it appeared that the Bbox-Bouygues Telecom team would fold, but Heulot said that he could not justify spending so much of his team’s budget on one rider. Voeckler ultimately stayed put as Europcar stepped in to sponsor Jean-René Bernaudeau’s team, but he had stated that he would join Cofidis ahead of Saur-Sojasun.
“I’m delighted to see Jean-René Bernaudeau find a sponsor,” Heulot said. “Thomas would have been a good headline act, but to make him a team leader at 32 years of age was another story.
“When Thomas told me that he preferred to go to Cofidis, I was proud to have put a cap on the inflation. It had become a matter of money, and I wanted to stay consistent to my values.”
Heulot also spoke of his dismay at the Alberto Contador affair, and the impact that it could have on smaller teams such as his: “The morning that it came out, my phone rang. It was one of the heads of Saur. He said to me, ‘Isn’t cycling a fine thing! What have you landed us in?’
“He didn’t say it maliciously, but he said it all the same, and the worst thing is that there is no answer to give,” Heulot continued. “The fact that, rightly or wrongly, the yellow jersey has been sullied again damages us all.”
The 1996 French champion admitted that he had no concrete solutions to cycling’s problems. “Nobody has, because nobody is objective,” Heulot said. “Everybody preaches to his own parish and we’re not even capable of explaining how the system works.”
Nonetheless, Heulot remains optimistic for his team and its future. “I believe in certain values and I believe in them because we are winning races, which would have been impossible ten years ago,” he said. “I’m not doing this job just to turn up to races and say that we can’t win them. Maybe it’s a utopian idea, but if the day comes when I feel powerless to achieve things, then I’ll stop.”