By Andrew Hood
It was a rocky 2007 season for the three ProTour Spanish teams. Inconsistent results and nagging questions over the Puerto doping investigation overshadowed many of the highlights for the Spanish Armada during last year’s campaign.
None of the three Spanish squads – Caisse d’Epargne, Saunier Duval-Scott and Euskaltel-Euskadi – managed to win a major tour or classic, though Samuel Sánchez saved what was an otherwise lackluster season for the Basque team with a late-surge in the Vuelta a España to finish third.
For 2008, all three are bringing on fresh talent to replace vacating stars as well as hoping to put the pall of the Puerto scandal behind them once and for all.
Caisse d’Epargne: Aiming higher
The ghosts of cycling’s past continue to nip at the heels of the once-charmed life of Alejandro Valverde.
Spain’s top star was dogged throughout the 2007 season about lingering questions on whether he was linked to the Operación Puerto doping scandal, a story that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
Despite Valverde’s insistence that he’s not the infamous “Piti” that appears in the Puerto documents, Italian officials this week announced they might call alleged ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes as well as Valverde and Tour de France champ Alberto Contador to the witness stand.
When he’s able to focus on racing, Valverde remains a dangerous rider and will enter 2008 as the reference point for Caisse d’Epargne.
Although he notched just five wins in 2007, his smallest haul since going winless in his rookie pro season in 2002, his sixth place at last year’s Tour de France only fuels ambitions for the French-sponsored team that remains Spanish at its core.
“Alejandro has shown he has the abilities to win the Tour,” says sport director Eusebio Unzue, who led Miguel Indurain to five straight yellow jerseys. “Last year, he managed to finish his first Tour so this year it’s realistic that we think first about aiming for the podium than to think of winning outright.”
Valverde’s racing schedule will change in 2008 as he will take aim at the Olympic Games in August and the world title in September beyond the Tour
Valverde, 27, remains the team’s captain as seven new riders come onboard for 2008 highlighted by the arrival of José Rujano, the Venezuelan climbing sensation who shot to prominence with third overall at the 2005 Giro. Other arrivals include Spanish rider Luis Pasamontes from Unibet.com as well as four additional French riders to keep the title sponsor happy.
Oscar Pereiro, who finally saw himself declared winner of the 2006 Tour following the disqualification of Floyd Landis, promises to keep his mind on racing this year.
Last year, he says he was distracted by the ongoing Landis saga and didn’t get serious about racing until it was too late to have much impact on results.
The team’s Spanish interests will be protected be a deep field of national riders, such as Fran Pérez, Xabier Zandio, Joaquim Rodríguez, Txente García and Pablo Lastras.
Caisse d’Epargne for 2008
Saunier Duval-Scott: Youth Movement
Out with the old and in with the new, that’s the buzz at the refitted Saunier Duval-Scott for 2008.
Gone are such marquee names as Gilberto Simoni and David Millar while the status of Iban Mayo remains uncertain as he continues to battle EPO allegations dating back from last year’s Tour de France.
In total, nine riders from 2007 departed with the only big-name addition in Josep Jufré, one of Cadel Evans’ former helpers at Predictor-Lotto. The rest are young up-and-comers looking to find their place in the peloton.
Youth is the catchphrase among sport directors Joxean Fernández and team manager Mauro Gianetti. The average age is a mere 24 as the team looks to turn the page and move into future with a heavy accent on promise.
“I believe we have a good, very young team and that’s a good thing because youth brings fresh energy. All we need now is that the young arrivals learn from the veterans,” Fernández said at the team presentation. “We want to build off the successes of 2007 and continue toward becoming the No. 1 team in cycling.”
The team is coming off its most successful season since its inception in 2004, notching 29 wins from 15 different riders.
The best results were packed into the early part of the season, with Riccardo Riccò proving he’s no longer a boy among men with five victories. “Juanjo” Cobo surprised at the Vuelta al País Vasco while the team ruled the roost at the Giro, walking away with the best climber’s jersey, four stages and the best team’s trophy.
With departing riders accounting for 10 of their 2007 haul, the “red birds” will be hard-pressed to match their success.
Riccò, the blond-haired Italian who accused some of his compatriots of being nothing more than “potted plants,” will boldly step into the leadership role. A winner of five races in 2007, including two stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and another at the Giro, Riccò will be out to prove he can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.
It remains to be seen whether he can challenge in grand tours, but he’ll certainly be a factor in one-day classics and on hillier parcours that favor his attacking style.
“My top goals this year are the Ardennes classics and the Giro,” said Riccò, who rode to seventh in the Giro. “But if I had to choose, I’d take the victory or a podium at the Giro.”
José Angel Gomez Marchante – riddled with injury and health problems in 2007 – will be looking to get back to his best in 2006 that saw him win the Basque Country tour and finish among the top five at the Vuelta.
The team’s best hopes will lie in the Giro and Vuelta, where veteran climber Leonardo Piepoli hit a new stride, scoring two stages and the best climber’s jersey at the Giro and another stage win at the Vuelta.
“We’re looking to the Giro with Riccò and the Vuelta with Marchante,” Fernández said. “We’ll go to the Tour to be competitive, but fighting for the overall remains a little unrealistic for us right now.”
Saunier Duval-Scott for 2008
Euskaltel-Euskadi: Foundation in place
Euskaltel-Euskadi remains an anomaly in the otherwise international world of professional cycling.
While some teams boast as many as a dozen nationalities, Euskaltel remains uniquely Basque. Part of the team’s 15-year tradition is that riders must be Basque or at least have very strong links to the community straddling the Pyrenees. In fact, Samuel Sánchez is the only rider who isn’t Basque by birth.
That much isn’t changing in 2008 as the team looks to move forward following a rebuilding year in 2007 that saw the departures of longtime sport director Julian Gorospe and star Iban Mayo.
The team enjoyed modest success in 2007 under new DS Igor González de Galdeano, highlighted by Sánchez’s late run through the Vuelta that included the team’s first-ever grand tour podium with third.
Sánchez — who turned down better offers to sign a contract extension to stay with the team through 2010 — will remain the team’s reference rider for 2008.
“There’s no other team like this in cycling. I was born with this team and I’d like to die with it, too, speaking of my sporting career,” Sánchez said. “For 2008, I will radically change my schedule and skip Paris-Nice and the Basque Country tour. Instead, I swill focus on the Tour and then try to shine on the ‘rebound,’ taking special aim at the Olympic Games and the world championships.”
Sánchez banner year overshadowed that of Haimar Zubeldia, the consistent yet quiet all-rounder who rode an ever-steady Tour to finish a quiet fifth overall. Zubeldia will carry the team’s colors through the early season with his peak aimed at reaching the Tour podium in July.
“I will try to score some early results and try to reach the podium at the Tour,” Zubeldia said. “The fact that ‘Samu’ is aiming for the Tour as well is fine with me. In fact, it’s better, it means that we share the responsibility in the Tour. That’s better for both of us.”
Among the team’s 26 riders, officials have high hopes for young riders Amets Txurruka (most combative rider at last year’s Tour), climbing sensation Igor Antón and Rubén Pérez. The arrival of veteran Egoi Martínez and Mikel Astarloza will give the team added depth throughout the long season.
“The team is coming off a good season and I think 2008 will be even better,” said team manager Miguel Madariaga. “I am convinced the team has even more potential. We have all the pieces in place to be among the best teams.”
The team is also hoping to round out its reputation as a climber’s paradise with sprinters Aitor Galdos, veteran Iñaki Isasi and breakout rider Koldo Fernández de Larrea, who won a sprint at Tirreno-Adriatico last year.
Euskaltel-Euskadi for 2008