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Caisse d'Epargne leaves a big hole to fill
The news that French financial giant Caisse d'Epargne has decided not to extend its sponsorship of the team led by Alejandro Valverde and Luis León Sánchez comes as little surprise.
Caisse team boss Eusebio Unzué admitted only last month during the presentation of the 2010 squad that the French bank would make its intentions known during the first quarter of this season. The likelihood was always that it would choose to put its sponsorship money into other sporting arenas and quit cycling altogether.
There is already plenty of speculation about the role Valverde's ongoing battle against doping allegations may have played in this decision, and this is sure to have been a factor to some degree. However, after six years backing one of cycling's elite teams, Caisse may well have achieved all they were ever going to from the sport, especially given the lack of outstanding French talent on the team they have backed for six seasons.
Back in 2005, Caisse had been hoping to enter cycling as the primary backer of a French-run team. There were negotiations with Jean-René Bernaudeau, then manager of the Brioches La Boulangère team. However, Bernaudeau decided to get into bed with Bouygues Telecom. As none of the other frontline French teams were contemplating a change of sponsor, Caisse's adviser, Yvon Ledanois, looked at the potential to invest in a foreign team, and settled on Unzué's outfit, which was at that time riding under the Illes Balears name.
Caisse d'Epargne's initial step was into a role as secondary sponsor. There was almost instant payback on the deal when Valverde beat Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong to claim a high-profile Tour stage win at Courchevel. The following season the sponsors' roles were reversed as Caisse took over as the primary backer.
That investment again paid off handsomely at the Tour, where Oscar Pereiro scrapped for the yellow jersey all the way to Paris, only to lose narrowly to Floyd Landis. When the American was subsequently stripped of the title for doping, Pereiro was belatedly crowned Tour champion.
Caisse d'Epargne became sole backers of the team when the Illes Balears brand withdrew at the end of 2006. High-profile successes continued to flow thanks mainly to Valverde and, increasingly, Luis León Sánchez. In 2008, the former claimed the individual ProTour title for the second time in three years. Last season, Sánchez demonstrated his growing ability by handing Alberto Contador his only serious beating of the season at Paris-Nice.
However, Valverde's status has been seriously undermined as he has hitherto proved unable to free himself from suspicion of a link to the Operación Puerto blood doping ring. Last year, the Italian Olympic Committee banned him from racing on Italian soil for two years based on DNA testing that, they have insisted, links him to Puerto. The ban prevented Valverde from appearing at the 2009 Tour and has led to high-profile hearings at the Court for Arbitration of Sport that could yet result in the Spaniard being banned worldwide.
On the face of it, Unzué's hopes of finding a new backer don't look great given the crisis affecting Spanish cycling. Its riders may have raised Spain to the top of the UCI's country rankings, but sponsors have been falling away in droves. Euskaltel is now the only Spanish-backed team at the top level.
However, Unzué may well have a successor in mind given that six months ago he was widely reported as being in advanced negotiations with a backer who would guarantee the signature of Alberto Contador if the Tour champion could find a way out of his Astana contract. In the end, Contador couldn't, but his deal with Astana finishes at the end of this season. He's already been linked to the mooted new team of Spanish star Fernando Alonso and a team backed by his bike supplier, Specialized, but don't be surprised if the canny Unzué persuades him to join the sport's longest-standing pro set-up.