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By Andrew Hood
Skil-Shimano, the Dutch-based continental team, seems to be one of the new darlings of ASO after receiving recent invitations to both Paris-Nice and Criterium International.
The fourth-year team is a blend of aging and aspiring Europeans mixed in with Japan’s most promising talent, including Fumy Beppu, who joined in 2008 after a three-year stint with Discovery Channel.
Maarten Den Bakker, one of the oldest riders in the peloton at 39, said the race invitations are welcome news.
“It’s important because the team is growing. We were really hoping to race Paris-Nice, because a lot of teams want to go there,” Den Bakker told VeloNews. “Still, it’s a surprise. We’re very happy. Now it’s important to race and show we deserve to be there.”
Den Bakker turned pro in 1990 and is starting his 19th season in the peloton. He joined Skil-Shimano in 2007 after riding for such teams as Rabobank, Milram, PDM and TVM during his long career.
He serves as an elder statesman to some of the younger riders on the team, but is still motivated to show he can be competitive at a high level.
“We have some good young riders here and some good veterans, too. We are building the team step-by-step,” he said. “I am still motivated to race. I was third in the (Dutch) national championships and 10th in the Eneco Tour last year. That proved I can still compete at the high level. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
Another veteran with something to prove is Sebastian Siedler, a former trackie who, at 29, joined from Milram and wants to help promote the team’s chances in the spring classics.
“I’m looking forward to proving myself in this team,” Siedler said. “I want to give a good account of myself in the sprints and in the Flemish classics this spring.”
The team lost the services of such promising riders as Maarten Tjallingii, who switched to Predictor-Lotto, and Sebastian Langeveld, who left for Rabobank after the 2006 season.
Beppu is the leading light among the Asian riders on the squad and team brass expects the lean climber to enjoy a breakout season as he steps into a higher-profile role.
Clément Lhotellerie, a 21-year-old French second-year pro, is also another hot prospect. He held the leader’s jersey for one day in the Ruta del Sol earlier this month. The team hopes that’s a sign of better things to come for the budding classics specialist.
For Den Bakker, invitations to such races as Paris-Nice come as a welcome confirmation, but even he admits the team isn’t ready to bump shoulders in the Tour de France. He said the team doesn’t expect a Tour invitation, at least not this year.
“The team is not ready for the Tour,” he said. “We have to be realistic. The Tour is beautiful and it’s the race that everyone wants to be in, but it’s also very hard. I started and finished nine Tours. I know how hard it is. Paris-Nice is a good place to start. We can show ourselves there and build for the future.”