Saur-Sojasun manager and former Tour de France yellow jersey Stéphane Heulot is hopeful that the team can make its Grande Boucle début in 2011 – but insists they are under no pressure from their sponsor to do so.
Saur-Sojasun were placed 22nd in the UCI rankings issued last week, with the top 18 teams granted ProTeam licences and, in all likelihood, automatic entry to the three major tours. With French squads La Française des Jeux, Cofidis, Europcar and Saur-Sojasun all missing out on ProTeam status – not to mention Carlos Sastre and Denis Menchov’s Geox-TMC outfit – competition for starting berths at the 2011 Tour is set to be fierce.
Speaking to Cyclingnews on Wednesday, Heulot seemed unfazed by the difficult task which awaits his team. Saur’s all-French roster amassed an impressive 27 wins courtesy of 11 different riders in 2010 – and Heulot is confident of an even better display next year.
“The Tour’s a long way away,” he said. “We’re not in the business of space travel, so let’s keep our feet on the ground. We’ve kept our roster very stable, and our policy is one of slow growth. We’re under no pressure from our sponsor or anyone else. Our priority is to stay true to our beliefs, our work ethic and keep improving. That’s got us to number 22 in the world rankings and 22 teams should ride the Tour, so there’s no need for us to worry.”
For most fans, Heulot’s name will forever conjure images of an epic alpine stage in the 1996 Tour. While he tearfully ripped the race number from his yellow jersey on the Cormet de Roseland that afternoon, Miguel Indurain was counting down the final moments of his Tour de France dynasty, as Luc Leblanc’s attacks en route to Les Arcs plunged the Spaniard into crisis.
Having retired as a rider in 2002, Heulot worked briefly in a PR role for his former Française des Jeux team-mate Mauro Gianetti’s Saunier Duval team. That association ended badly with Saunier Duval rider Riccardo Riccò’s positive test for CERA at the 2008 Tour. “Doping is so ingrained in certain managers, like Gianetti, that they can't conceive of cycling any other way," Heulot said at the time. “With people like Gianetti, we're heading straight for an impasse […]When people ask me if there's a risk of organized doping at Saunier Duval, I say 'yes' because I believe it, I feel it.”
Asked on Wednesday whether the prospect of vying with Gianetti’s Geox-TMC team for a Tour de France start provided added motivation, Heulot did his best to remain diplomatic. “He has his life and I have mine. I’ll just concentrate on our team,” he replied.
Gianetti’s complaint last week that his team merited a ProTeam licence on “ethical grounds” prompted a more forthright reaction. “I didn’t read that…but the man’s obviously got no shame,” Heulot smiled.
Should Saur-Sojasun be on the start-line on the Passage du Gois on July 2nd, it’s highly likely that Jérôme Coppel’s performances will have played a key part in getting them there. The 24 year old’s fifth place overall at the 2010 Critérium du Dauphiné was arguably the outstanding stage-race result of the season by a French rider. It also led many pundits to suggest that Tour chief Christian Prudhomme would be foolish to overlook the best French GC prospect of his generation when it comes to allocating places for the 2011 race.
“Jérôme is a real talent and one of the most exciting young riders on the international stage,” Heulot said. “He’s more mature than he was a year ago and his engine is bigger. He’s at the start of his adventure. But we also have lots of other talent on our books. Jonathan Hivert, Julien Simon and Guillaume Levarlet are all guys who, for one reason or another, perhaps haven’t fulfilled all of their potential yet, but are ready to do that. Then we have guys like Jimmy Engoulvent and Yannick Talabardon, who are real mainstays of the team.”
As if they needed any extra incentive, Heulot and his riders will be especially keen to make their bow in a Tour which spends much of its first week in the team’s home region of Brittany. The stage 4 uphill finish on the Mûr de Bretagne, in particular, has already whetted Heulot’s appetite.
“They will all be dangerous days in Brittany, but especially that one,” Heulot predicted. “A lot depends on the weather, of course. They’re tricky, undulating roads. I think that the team time trial will shake up the GC before the race gets to Brittany, but there could be more drama there. I really can’t see Cavendish’s team just getting on the front and controlling everything on the stage to the Mûr de Bretagne. It’s not the high mountains, but it’s not for sprinters either.”
Heulot reserved his final comment for the doping controversy which may yet see Alberto Contador barred from the 2011 Tour.
“I just wonder whether this would all still be going on if it was another or lesser rider,” he said. “The substance was present in his system and that should be enough to close the case. Beyond that, I don’t know whether the whole meat excuse is valid. I just know that it’s all very bad for cycling’s image.”