By Shane Stokes
Having presented its team at its headquarters in Stäfa, Switzerland on the 20th of this month, the Phonak squad is aiming big for 2006: The stated goal is to win the Tour de France. Last year, Floyd Landis finished ninth in his first season as a team leader, while Santiago Botero showed strong form in winning the Tour of Romandie. The former is confident that natural progression will aid his challenge this time round, while the latter is restructuring his season in order to hit form later and thus be more of a factor in July.
Team boss John Lelangue is clear about Phonak's capabilities. "We're going to France to win the Tour de France," he stated at the presentation, which included guests such as cycling legends Ferdi Kübler and Eddy Merckx, plus Jean Marie Leblanc.
Phonak finished second in the ProTour team standings in 2005, being bested only by Team CSC. The 26 riders will be even more focused on success this time round, with new signings such as Axel Merckx and Koos Moerenhout adding strength to the squad. Merckx will aim to be strong in the spring Classics (the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are particular focuses) and the Giro, then fulfil team duties and chase stage wins in the Tour. Landis, meanwhile, is likely to ride the Giro in order to hit peak form for July.
2006 is a big year for Phonak, not only in terms of chasing results, but also because it marks a transition for the team. After several years of backing, Andy Rihs' company will move on after the end of the season.
"We've reached the level of awareness that we wanted," he said at the presentation. "It's all about making a tremendous investment in order to make a broad public more aware of a product." Fortunately the future seems secure after Phonak steps down; a presenting sponsor, iShares, has been signed on for this season, and it is rumoured that it may take over the main sponsorship in 2007. Either way, cycling enthusiast Rihs will stay involved as owner of ARcycling, the holding company for the team, and will be doing what it takes to ensure that the Swiss squad secures full sponsorship for the future.
Phonak has a secret weapon for 2006: its BMC Pro Machine is the first bike to be built entirely using Easton CNT nanotechnology. This special type of carbon will ensure that its road and time trial bikes are amongst the lightest in the peloton.
In terms of their early racing programme, things get underway in Friday's Doha International GP. The Tour of Qatar follows, then the team will participate in events such as the Trofeo Mallorca, the Tour of California and the Tour of Valencia. Het Volk, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, and Milan Turin then take things up to Paris-Nice.
Even if it is unsure if races such as Paris-Nice will be part of the ProTour, Lelangue said that the team will continue to support events like this. "We want to do well in races such as the Tour of California and other events, but I guess my priority is to do well in the monuments. The races that have a big history in the sport. My position is different to that of some of my colleagues...even if some of the races are not there in the ProTour this year, they will still be pinpointed. For me it is important to be there with a big objective for those races, whatever happens in the future between them and the UCI. So the Giro, Paris-Nice, Tirreno Adriatico, Milan San Remo, the Vuelta - all those races are big objectives for us."
Also see: Inside the Phonak training camp: How the Swiss squad prepare