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Caisse d'Épargne's dream team aims high Down Under

Caisse d'Epargne's director Neil Stephens appeared to be giving instructions not only to his riders but the seals on Kangaroo Island.

Caisse d'Epargne's director Neil Stephens appeared to be giving instructions not only to his riders but the seals on Kangaroo Island. (Image credit: Jean-François Quénet)

Former Tour de France stage winner and world's best domestique when he rode for ONCE and Festina in the 1990's, Neil Stephens is no stranger to Caisse d'Épargne's line up looking like a 'dream team' at the Santos Tour Down Under.

The Spanish outfit has sent 2009 Vuelta a España winner Alejandro Valverde to Adelaide, plus Paris-Nice winner Luis Leon Sanchez, five-time Spanish time trial champion José Ivan Gutierrez, Tour du Limousin winner Mathieu Perget and experienced domestique Chente Garcia Acosta in addition to José Joaquin Rojas, who finished third in the Australian event last year, and his lead out man Mathieu Drujon.

"When this team was named Isles Balears after Banesto, the management had a very traditional approach of the early season," Stephens told Cyclingnews during a tourist trip on Kangaroo Island. "They followed the same race program as in the old days. To send a team to Australia was a very big step for them - the Pro Tour obliged them to travel so far away from Spain."

Before joining the staff of Caisse d'Épargne three years ago, Stephens tried to attract them to Adelaide with no success. "Now I wear different hats," explained the man who led Cadel Evans to Australia's first ever individual professional road world title last year. "I work firstly for Caisse d'Épargne. I also work for Cycling Australia. And I have a passion for the Tour Down Under."

The years he was not in charge of a team, Stephens worked at the South Australian event as a PR, a media car driver or a translator. He directed the Liberty Seguros team that made history in Willunga in 2005 when Alberto Contador won the penultimate stage ahead of eventual overall winner Luis Leon Sanchez. It's where the cycling world realised how exceptional the eventual winner of the 2007 and 2009 Tour de France was, only eight months after his dramatic accident at the Tour of Asturias.

After joining Caisse d'Épargne, Sanchez also campaigned for the team to head Down Under. When the race starts next week he will line up for his fifth edition. "I'm very supportive of the race when we plan our race program in November but I'm lucky enough the guys enjoy coming here," said Stephens.

"We only bring volunteers. Last year we asked the riders to vote and 12 of them wanted to come to Adelaide. This year we didn't vote but anyone here wanted to come."

As Valverde announced that Paris-Nice is his major goal for the early part of this season, he remembered that Sanchez rode the Tour Down Under before winning the "race to the sun" last year. "If you want to perform in Europe, part of the preparation has to be the Tour Down Under", Stephens stated.

"That's why we bring riders who can perform like Rojas and Sanchez, but also riders who have further goals like Valverde and riders who are coming back after injuries. This is the case for [Chente] Garcia because it worked very well with Oscar Pereiro last year." The 2006 Tour de France winner confirmed this by heading back to Adelaide in 2010 with his new team, Astana.