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Tales from the peloton, March 9, 2007

Part 2: Fine-tuning the Caisse d'Epargne motors

Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez,
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

The Caisse d'Epargne team gathered in Majorca for a final get-together before the start of the 2007 season. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes hopped in the team car to observe their preparation in the run-up to the 2007 season.

Stretching the legs before the season starts

There is a clear plan laid out for some of the group. "We will do two climbs today," says the directeur sportif. "We did Soller yesterday [second category climb in the north west of the island - Ed.]. But some of the group may do their own thing, depending on how they are feeling and what they have planned for tomorrow."

On cue, one rider leaves the group and heads in the direction of the team hotel. Before doing so, he chats briefly with the DS, who then gets on the radio to the other cars to let then know. "At this time of the year there is always one guy who is sick," he explains. "Then the virus can spread from person to person, affecting others. Pereiro has been wiped out for two days. What we do in that case is move him into a room by himself - it's better for him and also it helps stop it spreading - but that doesn't always work. Anyway, it's better that the rider plays it safe, so if someone doesn't feel right they can go back early or avoid training altogether."

The riders are now on a small climb, jettisoning the amateurs who had been on the back of the group while passing and dropping others. The pressure is on, with some in the group looking under pressure as the road rises. However it doesn't take long to reach the top, where everyone stops and has a toilet break en masse.

"A sort of champion's league is that it is not a bad idea, but the two sides need to work out an agreement between them."

- José Luis Jaimerena gives his view on the ProTour concept

Some use the time to make quick adjustments to their bikes and/or cleat positions, with one spending quite a bit of time making sure that his shoeplates are in the right position. He doesn't seem perturbed that the group has left and is by now quite far ahead, the reason why becomes apparent when he tucks in behind the car and gets a five minute draft back up to the others.

The riders were going pretty much flat out
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

The group is still doing 40 kilometres per hour but slows somewhat when passing though the village of Pina. Once out the other side, they turn onto the MA3140 and pass through Sencelles en route to Inca.

It is now 16 degrees and there are very few clouds in the sky; pleasant training conditions. Conversation in the car turns to Oscar Pereiro, the team's might-be winner of the Tour de France. He learned of Floyd Landis' positive test back in July yet still doesn't know if he is going to be crowned champion or not.

"It has been a long time," Jaimerena says. "The other day, [Christian] Prudhomme said that perhaps we will know the winner of the 2007 Tour before we know the winner of the 2006 race! This situation is not normal.

"It's hard. Winning the Tour is about being there [in yellow] on the Champs Elysees, that's important for the rider and the team. Even if Oscar is named winner, that experience is gone. To be like this more than six months later is not normal. It's not good for cycling, not good for anyone."

...and then behind the team car, shouting for more speed until they hit 90 km/h.
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

Valverde drops back to the car at this point and chats for a couple of minutes, asking if he can take a different route in order to avoid the hills. "He has a power test tomorrow," explains Jaimerena, "so he doesn't want to do too much.

"He is in good condition. He always is at a good level, actually. He can go well in the first few races. It is partly natural ability and also because he lives in an area, Murcia, where the winters are good. So he can stay in decent shape."

The group passes through Inca and continues north in the direction of Selva. The talking shifts back to Pereiro and his chances this year. "I think his confidence is good after the Tour. He was very strong in that race, especially when he had the jersey. He just had that bad day in the Pyrenees but was very good after that. I think being in yellow has given him more confidence all right, and that he can go to the race this year and be listed amongst the favourites."

So far there have been no punctures in the group but French road race champion Florent Brard has to make a stop after losing air. The wheel is changed and he then slots in behind the car, ramping up the speed as we chase the group.

Brard gets back on just as the roads are becoming a bit hillier. The group heads towards, and passes through, Caimari. The riders are soon on the climb of Coll de sa Bataia, where Iván Gutiérrez surges clear and causes an increase in pace in the bunch behind. Namesake Zaballa Gutiérrez and Pablo Lastras Garcia are soon dropped, with the Russian Alexei Markov heading south shortly afterwards.

Vladimir Efimkin and Lopez
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

The pressure is building up front, with just eight riders left at this point. Those at the back are looking uncomfortable but manage to hang on when one of their stronger companions attacks and stays clear for a kilometre.

The road levels off somewhat but the group is still heading upwards. At this point they are doing a considerable 38 kilometres per hour, underlining the fitness level. Things remain together for a few minutes but more attacks come when the road steepens, blowing the group apart. From that point each rider time trials to the top, doing what they can to chase whoever is in front. Frenchmen Eric Berthou and Nicolas Portal are amongst the first to the top, showing their decent condition.

Once at the top, the group stops and regroups. Riders take overjackets from the car and also munch hungrily on some snacks and refill on water, recharging a little before the second half of the spin. They then turn around and head back down the same way, speeding around the hairpin bends as they drop back towards Caimari.

Valverde's group had gone a different way but thanks to some good planning - and radio work, of course - the two join up again soon afterwards and continue on as a bigger formation. In the car, talk shifts to the ProTour and the conflict between the UCI and the organisers of the three Grand Tours.

"The problem is the war [between those for and against the series]," says Jaimerena. "The teams are caught in between. It's getting bigger every day and is clearly not good for the sport. Cycling is a relatively small world and if we cannot agree, there is a chaos. We all need to look for a solution, this has to be sorted out.

"My opinion about having something like the ProTour, a sort of champion's league is that it is not a bad idea, but the two sides need to work out an agreement between them. At the moment they have totally opposing views and it is very complicated. It's not good for the sport for this to be going on."

Training games

Gutiérrez showed that form
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

The reformed group is clearly feeling frisky, with a lot of attacking and impromptu racing going on. There is also room for some fun, too. Garcia Acosta attacks before a village, gets a gap and then hides. The group chases but the joke is turned on the joker when they realise he is chasing them, rather than the other way around, and they ramp up the speed. He has a hard time trying to get back on.

Sanchez and Rojas then attack and get a decent gap. They are about 15 seconds of the group and working hard to stay away. Valverde's feeling mischievous, though, and calls the car up to ask Jaimerena to tow them back up. He duly does so, smiling in the process. "These are the games they play in training…it's all part of it," he says. As for Sanchez and Rojas, they look like they don't know whether to laugh or be annoyed.

Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez are still behind the car, the other riders sitting behind them. "Go faster," they shout, so Jaimerena speeds up. "Go faster," they repeat, several times urging him on to even greater speeds. The others are catching more of the wing and get shelled; Valverde and Leon Sanchez dig in harder and harder and are eventually reach 90 km/h before they blow.

The hammer went down each time
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

Valverde peels off just before the final climb of the Santuari de Cura in order to save something for the test tomorrow. Some others go with him, leaving Nicolas Portal as the only rider left from that front group. Others are several minutes back, having lost out on the pacing behind the car, but they too are headed this way for a hill workout.

Portal talks to Jaimerena for a couple of minutes, getting a Spanish lesion when he mixes up two verbs. "No, no, you say me gusta when you like or want something," says the good natured DS. "If you say quiero , it's when you fancy someone..."

The Frenchman has been having some knee problems, most likely due to training in the cold weather, but seems to be feeling a bit better today and decides to do the climb. Several minutes later, the others follow. This group soon breaks apart under the pace being set by Gutiérrez and the Italian Marco Fertonani. They ride hard to the top, with Brard and Berthou chasing and the others scattered in ones and twos down the slopes.

All go to the top, turn around and roll back down again, riding the remaining kilometres to the hotel. They've been in the saddle for nearly five hours and some are feeling hungry, with Portal and one or two others dropping back to the car for food. Thierry Viane, the French mechanic, rummages around the selection and gives them what they want.

Good sports: Valverde and Pereiro
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

How about Jaimerena, does he himself get time to do any training? "No," he answers, "when I am on a race it is very intense…the whole day is taken up. You might think that you will be able to get out after the race but then you have to talk to the riders, make sure everything is okay and do other things. It is hard. It's probably easier to run - half an hour is a good run, but if you just do half an hour on the bike…that's not much."

So, the big question: does he think that Valverde can win the Tour this year? "It is hard to say," is the response. "He is a very strong rider and showed in the Vuelta last year, and also before that, that he can handle a three week race. However, because of his problems in the last two years, he hasn't yet finished the Tour. As a result he lacks that experience.

"The Tour is like no other race, you really have to ride it to learn about it. The last week is different, the climbs are different, the whole atmosphere is different. He is 26 this year so has more time anyway, but we will see how it goes. There are other guys on the team who have done it and they will be able to give him advice...that will all help. We'll see how things go in July."

With that, we arrive back at the team base, the Barceló Pueblo Park near the Playa del Palma. It's been quite a long day and the riders are tired. They'll get a massage, rest, eat and then sleep. Tomorrow will bring more training, the final few kilometres before they pin on their numbers and get the 2007 season underway.


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Images by Shane Stokes/Cyclingnews.com

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