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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

Road Season Preview 2004

Spain & Portugal: Still a force

By Martin Hardie

Despite the crisis of sponsorship that seems to have struck Spain over the last few seasons, the combined forces of the Iberian Peninsula are still able to boast six teams in Division I and four in Division II in 2004.

Interestingly, the trend in Spain has been one that is tending to move away being dominated by large corporations to a situation where governments of the autonomous regions and provinces are taking a leading role in taking up the slack. The central Basque government, along with the provinces of Bizkaia and Guipukoa, support Euskaltel-Euskadi; the Majorcan Government does so with Illes Balears - Banesto; and the Costa de Almeria (the Tourism Body of the Almeria province) and Communitat Valencia (Government of Valencia) supporting Costa de Almeria - Paternina and Comunidad Valenciana - Kelme respectively.

The remaining teams save for Liberty Seguros are sponsored by local or European businesses. Only Liberty Seguros wears the colours of a non-European multinational corporation. But even within these teams, there are strong local links. For example, Cafés Baqué, Relax Bodysol and LA Pecol all have grown out of local club and amateur teams. But one thing is certain: the landscape of Iberian cycling has been altered significantly this season with the departure of long-time sponsors ONCE and the back seat position of Banesto. With these changes in sponsorship, the emergence of a strong Euskaltel-Euskadi and the new Division I Saunier Duval squad, it is no longer a simply a question of deciding between ONCE and Banesto when electing the best Iberian team.

Several men, one mission: victory at Le Tour
Photo ©: Iban Gorriti

Euskaltel - Euskadi's tenth anniversary year follows hot on the heels of their best season ever. The sponsors have come on board with a little more money, although the team's budget is probably only a third of say, U.S. Postal's, and they have given a commitment until 2006. The aim is to win the Tour within that time, but for this year, the squad will be hunting a podium place in France and looking for wins in their home tours, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Euskal Bizikleta. An Ardennes campaign is also on the agenda, with one of at least four riders having the profile to be able to win in Fleche-Wallonne or the Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The big question is: can they hold their own in the team time trial at the Tour? If so, expect Mayo and Zubeldia to be both hunting the podium in Paris. Samuel Sanchez will focus on the shorter tours and the classics and the Etxabarrias will be there whenever there is an opportunity. Watch out for the Silloniz twins too, both are strong finishers.

Toni Colom does it for the sponsors in Mallorca
Photo ©: AFP

Miguel Echavarri's Illes Balears - Banesto squad will be one to watch, transformed from Banesto and one of the permanent fixtures of the peloton into a Majorcan Provincial flagship. With the change, the team has lost some of its long- time stayers such as Italian climber Leonardo Piepoli (to Saunier Duval), Basque veteran Jon Odriozola (to Communitat Valencia), and the Andulacian prospect, Juan Miguel Mercado (to Quickstep).

But the Spanish team shake up has seen Echavarri pick up some handy riders with Majorca's favourite cycling son, Toni Colom (ex-Relax), along with Jan Horrach (ex Milaneza) and Mikel Pradera (ex-ONCE). Along with Lastras, Garcia Acosta and the Osa brothers, the squad should have the means to support team leader Paco Mancebo in his quest for the GC throughout the season. Watch out for ex-Kelme rider Toni Tauler, who has the knack of getting himself in day-long breaks. The Russians, Karpets and Menchov, are also always ones to watch.

Liberty, equality, brotherhood: the Liberty Seguros leaders
Photo ©: AFP

The other permanent fixture of the peloton, ONCE, also find themselves under new sponsorship this season in the form of Liberty Seguros. With a transition maybe not as smooth as Echavarri managed, Manolo Saiz finds himself backed by US insurance giant Liberty but without star attraction Joseba Beloki. Also departing is Beloki's brother Gorka, Portuguese climber Jose Azevedo and Jorg Jaksche, who has the strength and potential to become more than the domestique he has been to date.

But with a strong team built around the pillars of Igor Gonzalez Galdeano and Isidro Nozal, the Saiz squad will be sure to be in the action throughout the season. Aussie sprinter Allan Davis and Angel Vicioso will be in the hunt during bunch finishes. Beloki's departure could well have left the team a deficient in the high mountains, but the sensational signing of Roberto Heras has given the team an added edge and at the same time removed an Achilles heel when it comes to this year's Vuelta. Watch out for Heras versus his old captain, Lance Armstrong and Iban Mayo in July.

Err... a little too Relax-ed
Photo ©: Shane Stokes

As any watcher of the Spanish season can tell you, Relax - Bodysol has been one of the teams who are always on the hunt and have built up a reputation as attacking all season long. Their efforts have paid of with their promotion to Division I and the merging of their management with Quickstep's Patrick Lefevere. The resulting roster of names is something that harks back to the days of Spain's 16th century dominion over the Netherlands, with a definite Spanish-Flemish connection dominating the roster. On the Spanish side, watch Santi Blanco, the Catalan Josep Jufre, and ex-Euskaltel rider, Alberto Martinez, all who have proven their worth; from the Belgium side, Nico Mattan and Bert Roesems stand out. It will be interesting to see where and how the squad performs, and whether they take with them the Relax spirit of recent years.

The jolly green giants of the Portuguese peloton, Milaneza-Maia, are always in the hunt throughout the season in the Spanish and Portuguese races. However this year, at least on paper, they seem a little weakened with the losses of Horrach, Fabian Jeker (to Saunier-Duval) and Claus Michale Môller (to Alessio). Whether David Bernabeu can fill the hole left by Jeker and Môller will be one for the big questions for the squad. Del Olmo and Angel Edo are another two veterans on the squad who will need to perform. Watch out for Rui Lavarinhas, who has shown glimpses of potential in recent years.

American Tim Johnson joins Saunier Duval in 2004
Photo ©: CN

Perennial Mapei management understudy, Joxean Matxin, finally gets to go on his own with Spanish based team Saunier Duval, and Matxin has put together a multinational squad packed with a good combination of experience and potential. Matxin has the reputation as a director of intuition, and with his years in the shadows of the Mapei bosses now behind him, he can now reveal himself as one of the next generation of Spanish directors.

The team combines a good blend of escapees, sprinters and climbers. With names like Rubens Bertogliati, David Canada, Juan Carlos Domínguez, Fabian Jeker, Tim Johnson, Ruben Lobato, Miguel Martin Perdiguero, Leonardo Piepoli and Constantino Zaballa, Matxin's team can not be discounted in any condition or terrain. Watch them closely, very closely.

Costa de Almeria - Paternina shone last year when their leader Pecharroman picked up two significant Spanish Vuelta's in succession, winning the Euskal Bizikleta by over a minute from Beloki and the Volta a Catalunya by a slightly smaller margin over Heras a fortnight later. But the team's turn on the podium may have been short-lived after he was scooped up by Quickstep and accompanied by Jose Garrido in the move. Not surprisingly, Paternina was left with a bit of a hangover, or what they call on CNN a "leadership vacuum".

The slack has been picked up by a string of imports and neo-pros, none which at first glance seem to be going to set the world on fire. It is possible that Pedro Diaz Lobato could shine on the local scene, along with the Euskaltel refugees, Euba and Herrero. But then Pecharroman virtually came out of nowhere, and it may be that the team's worth is more of a breeding ground than as a continual podium contender. Jokim Ormaetxea might be worth a look, as he has a reputation for consistency, picking up six classy wins in his last year as an amateur with the Caja Rural team. Another Basque neo-pro on the squad, Mikel Elgezabel, won the prestigious amateur stage race, the Bira in 2002.

The Basque country's second team, Cafés Baqué, are coming off a strong Vuelta in 2003 and have a solid line-up built around Aitor Kintana, Patxi Gutierrez and Felix Cardenas and his evergreen Colombian compatriot, Hernan Buenahora. In the 2003 Vuelta, Cafés Baqué finished tenth in the teams classification and Cardenas fought through the mountains to end up eight overall, fourth in the points, second in the combination and first in the mountains jersey. On top of all that, he won the mountain finish on the sixteenth stage to the Sierra Nevada. Expect more from him this year, both before and during the Vuelta.

These guys can climb; they have their team base in a hotel halfway up the Urkiola mountain, so with that in their legs each day expect them to be strong. Watch Patxi (Francisco) Gutierrez. He is strong. Expect the Baqués to step it up a notch in 2004.

The definite losers in the 2003 Spanish sponsorship stakes is Comunidad Valenciana - Kelme, with their long-time shoe making sponsor's position going from bad to worse. As a result, Vicente Belda has had a hard time maintaining the core of his squad in recent years, and they have gone from being the long-time Tour de France spectator drawcard to this year being left out and fighting with all they've got for the final wildcard place.

What a blow it would seem for the rider who may turn out to be the greatest Spanish sensation in years, Alejandro Valverde, to miss the Tour. Valverde appears to be able to fight for victory on any terrain and has already turned up the pace this year in the hope of ensuring that final place at the Tour. He has some good support with guys like Jon Odriozola and Angel Casero coming over to join the ranks. David Latasa is also one to watch for the breaks. But the future of the Valencian squadra is firmly in the hands of Valverde. A Tour without him and without Kelme would be disappointing to say the least.

Candido Barbosa finds success at the Volta ao Algarve
Photo ©: AFP

LA who? L.A. - Pecol are the final team to round out the first two divisions of Iberian cycling in 2004. And they may well be the longest running of the lot: the club that sponsors the team was formed back in 1922, and has a long history of victories in Portuguese racing. They have picked up David Arroyo from ONCE this season to add some firepower to their mainstays Candido Barbosa and Nuno Ribeiro. You often see Yon Bru in the running in bunch sprints. Incidentally, the L.A. Pecol club structure was the breeding ground for a young climber by the name of Jose Azevedo.