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By Andrew Hood
Just a few weeks ago, ONCE and Banesto both seemed doomed to the history books and commentators were bemoaning the fate of Spanish cycling. There was talk of hundreds of professional racers, masseurs, sport directors and other personnel hitting the streets without a job.
Following Monday’s news that Banesto will carry on with Balearic Islands, things are looking rather bright once again. ONCE seems poised to continue with the Italian tool-maker Stayer (though there’s been no official announcement) and Saunier Duval is stepping up from co-sponsor of the Vini Caldirola team to build its own Spanish-based Division I team.
Igor Astarloa delivered Spain’s third world title in five years and such rising stars as Iban Mayo, Haimar Zubeldia, Alejandro Valverde and Isidro Nozal give new faces to the enthusiastic Spanish racing fans.
Despite the good news, there remain rumors and speculation hanging over the recent road world championships where three Spanish riders, including newly crowned world champion Astarloa, are awaiting the results of doping tests.
Spanish races are also feeling a pinch, with the Vuelta a España limping through the 2003 edition on a tight budget after losing title sponsor Telefonica last year.
Unzué pleased new Banesto will roll on
It was down to the wire, but Banesto will be back in the 2004 peloton with a new title sponsor and a new name. While the details of the new team remain to be seen – a tentative name is “Islas Baleares Banesto” with Banesto staying on as co-sponsor for at least the first year — the good news is that the Balearic Islands regional government has committed to three years.
“It’s a moment of great happiness, especially in light of the anguish and distress in the past days,” the team’s sport director Eusebio Unzué told the Spanish wires. “I am very thankful to everyone who believed in us and in this project.”
The Balearic Islands government wanted Jan Ullrich to headline the team in part to attract German tourists to the islands off the Spanish coast, but the deal seemed to be torpedoed when the German returned to Telekom.
Balearic officials reconsidered and Unzué and team manager José Miguel Echávarri returned to Mallorca on Monday to pen the deal.
“Losing Ullrich was the end, but they later analyzed it in closer detail and they believed in the project,” Unzué said. “Despite not having a major star, they saw that we’re a strong team, we’re the No. 1 Spanish team and we’re fifth in the world rankings. This helped them reconsider the offer.”
The team has lost many of its top riders, including Juan Miguel Mercado (to Quick Step), Tour stage-winner Juan Antonio Flecha (to Fassa Bortolo) and Leonardo Piepoli, who just signed with Gerolsteiner (see below).
Unzué said the remaining 12 Banesto riders will continue with the team, which hopes to bolster its lineup with some late-season acquisitions and riders with connections to the Balearic Islands.
Unzué said the team will focus on the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta a España and the World Cup series. The team will also likely receive an automatic bid to race the Tour de France.
“The sponsor has interest in generating interest in the central and northern parts of Europe, so we will race in Germany, Benelux and rest of northern Europe,” he said.
Riders expected to continue with the team
Francisco Mancebo, Pablo Lastras, Denis Menchov, Iván Gutiérrez, Aitor Osa, Unai Osa, Chente García Acosta, Vladimir Karpets, José Luis Arrieta, Jon Odriozola and Xabier Zandio.
Rebellin, Garzelli go under knife
David Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Stefano Garzelli (Caldirola) will both go under the knife in the coming days, according to reports in the Italian press. Rebellin will be operated on in a Milan hospital to repair damage to his left shoulder he injured in a spill in the Fleche Wallone race back in April. Rebellin wanted to wait until the end of the season to have the surgery and will be off the bike for about two weeks.
Garzelli, winner of the 2000 Giro d’Italia and second overall this year, will enter a hospital Thursday to have his tonsils removed. Evidently, this was the trouble behind Garzelli’s breathing problems that prompted him to abandon the 2003 Tour de France. He’s expected to be out of the hospital in three days.
Vuelta will visit soccer stadium in 2004
The Vuelta a España finished the 2002 edition inside the Bernabeu soccer stadium of super-team Real Madrid. Next year, the Vuelta will have a similar finish inside the Camp Nou stadium of arch-rival FC Barcelona.
The Catalan daily SPORT reported that Vuelta organizers have recently met with FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta to hammer out the details. The stage will be similar to the 2002 version, with a time trial ending inside the football stadium. In 2002, more than 35,000 fans showed up to watch the fun.
The 2004 Vuelta route is expected to be announced later this year.
There are several new signings as the 2003 season comes to an end. Italian rider Leonardo Piepoli is set to leave iBanesto.com and join the German team Gerolsteiner.
Gerolsteiner has also penned a deal 23-year-old Thomas Ziegler, who raced with Division II Wiesenhof this season.
As reported earlier, Juan Carlos Dominguez has confirmed a deal that will take him from Phonak to the Spanish start-up Saunier Duval. The team has already signed eight riders and is still looking for more.
Alberto Martinez, the Spanish rider who beat Lance Armstrong in the 2002 Criterium International, will leave Euskaltel to join Relax-Fuenlabrada.
Spanish national champion Ruben Plaza will join Kelme next year.