By Andrew Hood
The former team of disgraced cheaters Riccardo Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli rolls on in 2010, surviving a difficult struggle to try to erase the doping stigma from its name.
The former Saunier Duval squad will continue in 2010 thanks to the arrival of the new title sponsor Footon.
“It’s important because we’ve been able to continue the team,” team manager Joxean Fernández Matxin, speaking to the Basque newspaper Deia. “Now it’s important that (the media) spread the message of what we’ve said since day one about what happened with Riccò and Piepoli. (CONI) conducted an investigation and it clearly demonstrated that there was no systematic doping within the team. … We feel like victims that two cyclists wanted to improve their performance put into risk the livelihood of dozens of people who had nothing to do with Riccò.”
In 2008, the Spanish-based team was riding high and enjoyed its biggest successes ever, winning two Tour stages with Riccò and another with Piepoli. Those results were later engulfed with controversy as both Italians returned positive for the third-generation EPO called CERA.
Following the damaging scandals, longtime sponsor Saunier Duval quickly exited, leaving the team to cobble together sponsors to ride out the 2008 season. The team hobbled through the 2009 season, with Servetto and Fuji stepping up to help keep the team together.
A query by Italian officials at hearings for both Riccò and Piepoli revealed that the riders were acting on their own, not as part of an organized doping scheme within the team structure.
But that wasn’t enough for skeptical race organizers and the team was banned from the grand tours. Only a successful appeal to CAS opened the door, allowed them to ride the Giro d’Italia and later the Vuelta a España, where Juan Cobo won a stage to help salvage the season.
The arrival of Footon – a Danish foot-bed company – gives the team a more solid financial footing as it moves toward the 2010 season.
The arrival of the new sponsor allow Matxin and manager Mauro Gianetti to have a fresh start, both for building the team and before the eyes of media, fans and race organizers. Servetto is the co-title sponsor.
The squad will retain its ProTour license, assuring it a place at the most important dates on the calendar. Matxin is also optimistic it can return to the Tour this year.
“Maybe we don’t have riders to challenge for the overall, but we can aim to win stages, not just one, but several,” he said. “We’ve spoken to the Tour officials. We’re all on the same page about clean cycling. We’re hoping, like Astana, after one year of exile we can come back. We will make clean cycling, transparent, with a lineup to have a place in all the major races.”
The team, however, is losing some of its top riders. Cobo is heading to Caisse d’Epargne and Davide de la Fuente, who won the Tour’s most aggressive rider prize in 2006, has signed with Astana.
To rebuild, the team is signing scores of young, promising riders as it tries to rebrand its image as a “clean” team.
“It’s always been like that for us. Every year, we have top riders leave for other teams that can offer better economic benefits, and we bring on younger riders or riders who were on the second line,” Matxin said. “Now we will be a reference for new values, not just getting results.”
The team’s new members so far are: Swiss David Vitoria (from Rock Racing), Italians Michele Merlo and Marco Corti (from Barloworld), Spaniards David Gutiérrez and David Gutiérrez Palacios (from Camargo elite2), Spaniard Rafael Valls (from Burgos Monumental) and Colombian Miguel Ángel Rubiano (Centri della Calzatura-Partizan).
Returning riders so far include Eros Capecchi, Arkaitz Durán, Alberto Benítez and Ermanno Capelli.