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Giro finale
Photo ©: Bettini

Tales from the peloton, February 11, 2007

The two kings of Caisse d'Epargne

Anchored by Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro, the Caisse d'Epargne team are heading into 2007 with high hopes. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes got the details from Directeur Sportif Alfonso Galilea.

Caisse d'Epargne directeur sportif
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

The Caisse d'Epargne team headed to last year's Tour with what they thought was one potential podium-getter on their hands, but another rider may yet end up with the final yellow jersey of the race. After Alejandro Valverde crashed out, Oscar Pereiro lost a lot of time, then gained back even more and ended up wearing yellow for several stages. What's more, although he finished on the second step of the podium in Paris, Floyd Landis' positive may yet present the Franco-Spanish team with a race win that they never thought was possible.

As for Valverde, he bounced back from his broken collarbone to finish second in the Vuelta, third in the world road race championships and win the ProTour. The team are now heading into 2007 knowing that they have two big guns for the Tour de France. Importantly, this fact relieves pressure on both of their riders while increasing it on the other contenders. It is, clearly, an ideal situation.

"The most important thing for Alejandro is to know what that final week in the Tour is like. It's not like the last week in the Vuelta or the last week in the Giro"

- Caisse d'Epargne directeur sportif Alfonso Galilea on one of his key weapons in Grand Tours

Despite this, though, for now the team are talking about podium places rather than going for the win. Valverde has crashed out of his first two Tours but does have a stage victory in the high mountains – in front of Armstrong, no less – to show as proof that he has the class to win it sooner or later. He and his team stress that reaching Paris is the priority this season, with 2008 the likely timescale for him to go all out for the win.

According to Caisse d'Epargne directeur sportif Alfonso Galilea, Pereiro showed last year that he is a real contender. "We have to think in the most positive way [about what could happen in July]," he told Cyclingnews at the team training camp on Friday. "Last year was very, very strange. We had the problem with Alejandro due to his crash in the first week, and everything changed at that point. With Oscar, after a very strange day when he lost half an hour, he was able to get back that time. And, after that day, he was in the top ten every day and was very, very good.

"This means that he is able to be on the podium of the Tour de France this year. After all, he only had one bad day in the whole Tour. So we think that he could be in the top three this year."

He backs up Valverde's own assertion that 2006 is primarily about learning. "First, Alejandro has to finally finish one Tour. In the last two years he had problems. He is old enough to do a very good Tour. Last year he was second in the Vuelta a España but the Tour is very, very different to the other three week races. Therefore, first of all, he has to learn. He does however have enough experience to be able to be in the top ten this year, or perhaps on the podium."

Valverde will head to the race knowing that the team is not putting pressure on him to triumph this season. "It is important to finish the Tour and to learn about the last week," Galilea continues. "The most important thing for Alejandro is to know what that final week in the Tour is like. It's not like the last week in the Vuelta or the last week in the Giro, it's very different. So he has to learn every day, day by day, what could happen then.

"Pressure is not good for anybody but for Alejandro, he has just a little bit of that. And that comes from himself, not from the team. We are very, very lucky that we have two riders who are able to be on the podium, and perhaps this is going to make Alejandro ride a little less nervously.

Alejandro Valverde
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

"The fact that another rider from the team is able to be with him in the top ten, the top five, is very important…for both of them, not only for Alejandro. It could be very good for Pereiro also. In the race, regarding the tactical battle, it will be very important to know that you have another rider of the team near you."

Galilea was speaking to Cyclingnews one day before the end of the team training camp near Playa de Palma, Majorca. He said he was happy with how things had gone. "Today is the only day that it is raining. The other days, the sun was shining and there was very good weather. It was possible for the team to do some very good training and for all the riders, it has been a very good week.

"We have also done a lot of other things…logistical things for the team. The medical controls for the UCI, the photos for the posters and publicity material, the measurement for the clothes and setting up the time trial bikes.

"It is a week which is necessary. The time is not only for the training, but there are also many other things you have to do here. Sometimes it seems that the week is not long enough for everything you want to do! But for us, it was very, very positive and we think that it is enough to start the season in the Challenge of Mallorca in very good condition.

As was mentioned earlier on Cyclingnews, Sunday's opening leg of the Majorcan races comes a year after team sprinter Isaac Galvez galloped home to take the first of two consecutive stage wins in the race. Galvez was tragically killed in a racing accident in Gent in November, and so it will be a very emotional time for everyone involved with Caisse d'Epargne.

"It was very hard for the whole team," Galilea said. "I think that nobody thought that something like this could happen. It is very strange, and for it to happen on the track is even more peculiar. Normally the road is more dangerous, with a lot of people there; a sprint on a normal road stage it is more dangerous than a sprint on the track.

"But that is life. It is very, very strange. For the team it was very, very, very hard, but life continues and all we can do is to dedicate the victories this season of the team to Isaac, and try to do as well as possible for him. To celebrate the memory of him."

Alejandro Valverde had hoped to line out as part of the squad on Sunday but, at the time of writing, his participation was uncertain due to a stomach problem he had been suffering during the week. "It depends on how his health is," Galilea said. "Normally, if Alejandro is okay, he should be on the start line of the first stage. Yesterday [Thursday] was a very bad day for him and today he is a little bit better, but that leaves just one day between now and Sunday. We must wait to see how things progress, but I think and I hope that he will be on the start line."

Even if Valverde doesn't start on Sunday, the Majorcan races allow riders to pick and choose the stages they compete in. So while he wouldn't be able to go for the overall – never an intention, anyway – Valverde can still make his season debut in these races. He is likely to help Caisse d'Epargne's men for the GC, namely the two Balearic riders Joan Horrach and Vicente Reynes, plus Fran Perez and Luis Leon Sanchez.

Pereiro has also been sick, suffering from a dose of flu, but as the weekend approached he was feeling much better and therefore more likely to start on Sunday. In all, six others were under the weather – Valverde, Iván Gutiérrez and Alexeï Markov were suffering with stomach problems while Pablo Lastras, Joaquím Rodríguez and Xabier Zandio had the flu.

Still, Galilea was hopeful that one of the healthy riders could net some success in the races. "I think it is possible. Every year is the same…we have some riders who are trying to be in good form for the first part of the season, some of the riders wait a bit later for the Belgian Classics and, of course, the main objective of the team is the Tour de France."

Riding well in July is a big, big goal. So too overall consistency during the season. "This year we have 27 riders," he continues. "If the health problems during the season are not very important, I think we have enough riders to have a very good time throughout the whole year. Of course, the Tour de France is the principal objective of the team. That will be the big target for us."

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