By Anthony Tan
Try, try again is Charles Dionne's most likely calling card. Ten minutes before the start of the Barclay's Global Investors Grand Prix (San Francisco Grand Prix) last Sunday, the 26 year-old Canadian finally signed the dotted line to join ProTour team Saunier Duval-Prodir on a two-year contract.
"I am extremely happy with this agreement with Spanish professional team Saunier Duval-Prodir. It is an excellent team that participates in the Tour of France," said Dionne in a statement from his management, the last three words no doubt alluding to what his future ambitions might be.
Around this time last year, Dionne came awfully close to signing with Saunier Duval, but for one reason or another, the contract fell through at the eleventh hour. Down but not out, Dionne went looking again, with French team Ag2r Prévoyance promising him a ride if they made the ProTour; history now tells us that Vincent Lavenu's team was one of the last to be left off the final 20-team roster.
Rejoining Webcor for another season in 2005 wasn't a problem for Dionne; however, the two-time winner of the San Fran GP (2002, 2004) kept up the correspondence with the two teams throughout the season, sending emails, faxes and making telephone calls until Saunier Duval came back with a 'yes'. "I have a two-year contract which can be broken after the first year. Therefore, it will be necessary that I ride well and that I fulfill my role within the team. But I am ready to play any part," he told Radio-Canada on Tuesday.
The onus on the Canadian to prove himself in his first year looks to be a safeguard against another 'Tim Johnson situation' that the team experienced in 2003, where the American regularly found himself out of his depth. Chris Horner's solid performances this year, most notably his stage win and fifth overall at the Tour de Suisse, appears to have provided management with enough confidence to sign another talented North American, although Horner is leaving for Davitamon-Lotto. But like Horner, Dionne will face similar cultural barriers at Saunier Duval (Spanish being the 'team language'), along with the longer distances and a different style of racing associated with competing in Europe - beginning with a earlier than usual start to the season.
"Normally, in January, I hardly begin my preparation. But the team has a ten-day [training] camp in January, riding five to six hours per day in the mountains, so I will have to be more ready than previous years," said Dionne, although cautioning that "it will be especially necessary that I pay attention not to give 110 percent, only 100 percent, to not burn msyelf [out]. I will have to pay attention in managing my periods of rest well."
Where he will base himself is still unknown, but with a large contingent of North Americans in the southern Spanish town of Girona, one of Saunier Duval's two European bases (the other being Bergamo in Italy), it's likely Dionne will choose the former. As for his race schedule, that's also undecided, but Dionne's made it obvious where he wants to be next July.
"My main goal is to compete in the Tour de France. I will start the 2006 season competing in the important races of the ProTour circuit and I will work very hard to be on the final selection for the team for the 2006 Tour de France. There will be 28 [riders] on the team and nine are selected, so I know I have to earn my place. But I have the foot in the door now - it is up to me to prove what I can do," he said.
Along with Michael Barry and Ryder Hesjedal (both Discovery Channel), Dionne will be the third Canadian rider in the UCI ProTour.
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