By Andrew Hood
Saunier Duval-Prodir rolls into the heart of the 2006 as a dramatically different team. Eleven riders from last year are gone, replaced by big names such as Gilberto Simoni, David Millar, Koldo Gil and Luciano Pagliarini.
Now in its third year in formation, Saunier Duval has matured in its goals and aspirations, taking aim for bigger fish, namely the Giro d’Italia with two-time champion Simoni. The return of Millar after a two-year racing ban is sure to attract a lot of attention, even more so if Millar can snag the yellow jersey in the opening prologue at the Tour this year in what will be his first race back.
The team is also loaded with up-and-coming talent, highlighted by José Gomez Marchante’s impressive overall victory earlier this month at the Vuelta al País Vasco. North Americans Charles Dionne and Aaron Olson are both getting their opportunities in some of Europe’s biggest races.
On the eve of the Giro start, VeloNews caught up with team manager Mauro Gianetti in a two-part interview to discuss the team’s hopes in Italy, the addition of Olson and Dionne, and the controversial return of Millar.
VeloNews: What are your expectations for the team this year?
Mauro Gianetti: After three years, we have our best team ever, of this much I am sure. Of course, we´ll know by October, but now we come with a deeper team. Before, we would attack, attack, attack. This year, the team is starting slower, aiming more for the stage races. This year we are aiming for the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. We are a team now that must control the race. We cannot just attack in every stage to come up with nothing. We have Simoni for the Giro and Marchante for the Tour and Vuelta. We also have Millar, who can be a big figure in the Vuelta as well.
VN: Marchante´s win at the Basque Country tour was a surprise to some?
MG: Well, it wasn´t to us. He is a rider who is coming up for many years now. He was in the top 10 last year in the Vuelta and had it not been for a shoulder injury, he would have been a big player in the Tour last year. He was strong all week in the Basque tour and the victory in the final time trial is the fruition of our work in the wind tunnel. Scott has done a great job with us to work with the riders in the wind tunnel and improvements are already being seen.
VN: Simoni is the team´s big addition, why him as the team´s first big star?
MG: After two years for us, we had to develop the team and be prepared to have a big leader like Simoni. It wasn´t just a question of money, but also of maturing of the team, the infrastructure, the experience of the riders and the staff. We must take things step by step. Now we are on the first tier in terms of massage, mechanics, sport directors, everyone knows their job. We have created a good ambiance with this team. Everyone is happy at the dinner table. We are laughing and we are loose. This is very important. Now we can start with a new mentality with a leader like Simoni.
VN: You´ve made a big bet with Simoni, do you believe he can still be at the top level?
MG: Gibo is perfect for this team. This is his best chance to make a big result with a team. He´s preparing 100 percent for the Giro and we think he can win. Last year he was only 28 seconds from winning. This is such a small margin. And this year´s Giro is even harder, when exprience will be so important. We see the big riders are coming to the Giro – Basso, Di Luca, Savoldelli – the level will be higher than at the Tour. The big race this year will be the Giro, not the Tour.
VN: How did you come to select Olson and Dionne?
MG: We knew Aaron is a good rider, but he wasn´t a rider who won a lot of racers. He still caught our attention. Max Testa called me to tell me Aaron had big potential, that his motor was very big. He said, don´t worry, you´ll be happy. With Charles, I´ve seen him race in Philly and San Francisco. We´ve seen he’s a big rider with big motivation. He´s not made for the big mountains, but he´s find for the one-day races and shorter stage races. With (bike sponsor) Scott, they asked us to sign some North Americans. We think we found good solutions with these guys.
VN: You´ve brought over Tim Johnson and Chris Horner, how do the U.S. riders adapt to racing in Europe?
MG: Tim Johnson is a good guy, but he had a problem with adaptation to the European level. He made too much work and he trained too hard. He was always tired at the races. Horner did a good job for us and his experience with FDJeux years ago helped. When he came back to Europe, he had a good attitude. With Aaron and Charles, we´ve seen them adapting well. It´s not a problem for them to change. They have a big motivation to do well. These riders must change their training a lot for Europe. Everything is different. The American guys want to eat hamburgers and drink Coca-Cola, you cannot do that here. The level of racing is so high that a rider cannot eat whatever he wants.
VN: How are Americans different from the Europeans?
MG: The Americans have a good mentality. They are open to new ideas. Look at what Lance did for racing. He made a big impact – the training, the food, the bicycle, the team, everything was 100 percent. There´s been a big shift in the eyes of the Europeans looking at the Americans. You see a lot of top American guys, Floyd, Levi, Hincapie, there are 10 to 15 guys at the top level. The American guys are more serious. The young European guys aren´t so serious. They have a lot to learn from the Americans.
We’ll continue our conversation with Mauro Gianetti onTuesday, when the Saunier Duval boss discusses his team’s decision to recruit Britain’s David Millar, as his two-year ban for EPO use expires just two days before this year’s Tour de France.