By Andrew Hood
Chris Horner’s wish to return to the European peloton came true sooner than expected. Moments after crossing the finish line in Verona’s world championships, Horner told VeloNews he was hoping to sign a contract with the Spanish team Saunier Duval as soon as that night. He even joked he wanted to stay in Europe and race in the season’s final two World Cups.
“I’d love [them to] slap me on some colors and go ahead and do Paris-Tours and Lombardia,” Horner said.
Well, it appears that’s just what’s going to happen. The deal is signed and Horner is set to debut with Saunier Duval at Paris-Tours on Oct. 10 and race in the World Cup finale at Giro di Lombardia on Oct. 16 as well.
“We worked out the deal with Chris and he said he was interested in staying here and racing the final World Cups, so we agreed,” Saunier Duval team manager Joxean Fernández told VeloNews. “He said he has the form and we’re interested in seeing him race.”
Fernández said Saunier Duval wanted to add another U.S. rider to the roster and spoke with team rider Tim Johnson about which Americans might fit into the team. Fernández said he also spoke with Fred Rodriguez, but the three-time national champion opted for Belgians classics team Davitamon-Lotto.
Fernández made it very clear Horner will have the chance to race as a team leader.
“If Chris gives everything to be ready to race, he will have the entire backing of the team,” Fernández said. “Chris will have the opportunity ride as a leader of the team, but he has to demonstrate that he’s fit, he’s prepared and he’s ready. This is a perfect team for a rider like Chris. Everyone gets a chance to win.”
Horner has made no secret of his desire to return to Europe. The 32-year-old raced with Française des Jeux (now FDJeux.com) from 1997-99, but wasn’t terribly satisfied with his first European experience. Upon his return to home roads, he ruled the domestic scene, racking up wins at will. Horner finished eighth as the top American in Sunday’s elite men’s world championships in Verona, Italy.
Three final teams named to ProTour
Whether or not the renegade grand tours will take part, the proposed ProTour now has its final teams.
With such heavy-hitters as the Amaury Sports Organization — the company that runs the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Nice and Fleche Wallone — still voicing bitter differences, the UCI is moving doggedly ahead with the major reshuffling of cycling.
Three final teams — Domina Vacanze, the Saeco-Lampre merger and Bouygues Telecom (formerly Brioches La Boulangère) — were named by the UCI on Wednesday. The announcement remains provisional until next month when all teams must demonstrate their financial stability.
UCI president Hein Verbruggen stuck to his guns in a press conference last weekend, saying the ProTour is “beyond the point of no return.”
Talks between the UCI and ASO are expected to continue but neither side seems willing to concede too much. While the organizers of the Giro and the Vuelta are closer to signing off on the ProTour, especially after Verbruggen agreed to keep the races at three weeks each, respectively, there remain difficult issues to resolve.
With the ProTour teams promised four years license, the grand tours don’t like the format that keeps their hands tied, especially when it comes to inviting teams to their races. The races want more flexibility on allowing other teams into the ProTour if teams don’t deliver a strong product.
Concerning Wednesday’s announcement, the Saeco-Lampre and Bouygues Telecom don’t come as big surprises. The Italian team comes loaded with such riders as Damiano Cunego, Gilberto Simoni and 2003 world champion Igor Astarloa while the French team is promising to pump big money into signing big names.
More surprising was the inclusion of Domina Vacanze. The Italian team lost the services of rising star Michele Scarponi to Cofidis and star sprinter Mario Cipollini has suffered through two sub-par seasons. This late in the game there remains few big names on the market, but the team secured the final spot in the ProTour.
The big losers include Spanish team Valenciana-Kelme, French lineup Ag2r and Italians squads Alessio-Bianchi and Vini Caldirola. Alessio-Bianchi is considering pulling the plug on its sponsorship while Vini Caldirola lost the services of ex-Giro winner Stefano Garzelli, who has signed with start-up Liquigas. Ag2r has also seen the departure of some of its star riders, including Jaan Kirsipuu.
The exclusion of Valenciana-Kelme has big implications for Spanish star Alejandro Valverde. While he couldn’t match his breakout 2003 season with a repeat of the Vuelta-world’s podium this year, he remains one of cycling’s hottest properties and has publicly said if Kelme is left out of the ProTour he would try to buy his way out of his four-year contract to join another team.
But Valverde has three more seasons left with Kelme and his hefty buy-out clause worth a reported 3 million euros has already scared off more than one suitor. The Spanish media was reporting Wednesday that Illes Balears is close to signing the 24-year-old on heels that Kelme didn’t make the ProTour grade.
With the final teams named, the ProTour will debut with five Italian teams, four French teams, three Spanish teams, two Belgian teams, two German teams and one team each from the United States, Switzerland, Denmark and Holland.
Bettini wants third World Cup title
Paolo Bettini has shaken off his troubles in Sunday’s world championships and is now putting his focus on the remainder of the 2004 season.
Bettini hopes to bounce back from the disappointment of having to abandon in Verona after smacking his knee into a car and his handlebars after a hasty wheel change midway through the race. Bettini underwent an MRI Tuesday at the Sports Traumatology Department in Lucca, which revealed a contusion, but no serious injury, his Quick Step team reported.
That means the two-time defending World Cup champion can enter the season’s finale with hopes of making it three in a row. “I’m very satisfied about that,” Bettini said. “I have been very lucky. This morning I trained for a couple of hours without forcing my knee. Now I’m starting anew for the last seasonal aim. I want to overcome (Davide) Rebellin and win my third World Cup.”
Mancebo under the knife
Francisco Mancebo, third in the Vuelta a España, underwent surgery Tuesday to repair his broken left hand, the result of a spill at the Tour of Burgos in mid-August.
Doctors took an hour to repair damage at the Clínica Ruber Internacional in Madrid. The Spanish national champion spent the night in the hotel and was ordered to keep his hand immobilized for 6-8 weeks.
The operation comes weeks after the injury and what turned out to be the best run in Mancebo’s career. After a solid Tour de France, he was expected to challenge for the overall title at the Vuelta when he crashed in the Tour of Burgos just days before the Olympics.
He almost didn’t make the Vuelta start, but rode consistently and scored his first podium finish in a grand tour. Last weekend in Italy, he provided key support to eventual winner Oscar Freire.