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Cofidis, France's big budget Division I professional team, presented its 2004 line up at the Equinox in Paris on Friday, January 9. Making the most of the three world champions in team colours, Cofidis exuded confidence with a roster that is arguably its strongest ever.
Cofidis president François Migraine opened the presentation on a somber but touching note with a video tribute to Andrei Kivilev, who died after a crash on the roads of Paris-Nice last spring. Migraine remembered Kivilev, whose wife Natalya accepted the team's invitation to attend the program, before looking forward to the coming season and turning the microphone over to the "speaker of the Tour de France," Daniel Mangeas.
The team won't be racing off-road any time soon, but mountain bikes were the ride of choice as riders were called to the stage five at a time. Mangeas, a walking database of riders and results, introduced each along with their career highlights and notable results from 2003. Seventeen members of the 2003 team will continue in 2004, while a number of talented riders have been signed to bolster still the team's depth and fill some voids.
Chief among the new recruits is Spaniard Igor Astarloa (ex-Saeco), winner of the world championships road race in Hamilton, Canada last October. Astarloa is a classics rider who will target the World Cup and tough one day races. Winner of the Flèche Wallonne in 2003, Astarloa dreams of going one better and winning the 'doyenne', Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
To provide the team more options in the bunch sprints and fast finishes, French sprinter Jimmy Casper was signed along with Stuart O'Grady, himself a strong sprinter and increasingly a candidate for the tough classics after his podium places in the 2003 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Tours. O'Grady is hopeful that Cofidis will provide the depth necessary to offer support in the critical moments of the big races.
"I'm not asking for an eight man leadout, it's just those couple of guys for the final moments where you really need a hand," O'Grady told Cyclingnews.
One reason O'Grady left Crédit Agricole was an increasing conflict of interests with fellow sprinter Thor Hushovd, who also saw the green jersey in the Tour de France as a target. Despite the fact that Cofidis has also brought Casper on as a sprinter, O'Grady doesn't expect any toes will be stepped on in his new team.
"Jimmy's a talented rider... We'll just communicate, and I'm sure we're going to have different objectives through the season."
Joining O'Grady will be friend and fellow Australian Matt White, who leaves US Postal Service to join Cofidis. In fact, White had signed with Cofidis before O'Grady, but the two were equally pleased to learn that they would soon be teammates. White himself looks forward to a change of scenery after his time with US Postal, which he described as a positive experience with one of the peloton's most professional teams.
"I'll definitely have more opportunities for myself," White said of his new place in Cofidis. "May will be the month where I'll try to have good results. I had good results then last year at the Tour of Belgium, Four Days of Dunkerque, and in Philadelphia, and I'd like to target Dunkerque, Picardie, and Belgium again. Maybe the Tour of Luxembourg as well."
"Obviously there will be a lot of times during the year when I'll be working for the team, but I'll also get opportunities for myself," he continued. "At the Tour de France it'll be totally different riding than what was done at US Postal, because Cofidis hasn't got anyone who can win the Tour, so they'll be looking for stage wins and not someone who can win the overall. That's a big bonus for someone like myself."
Great Britain's David Millar, newly crowned world time trial champion, remains one of the team's focal points. Almost giddy on stage in his rainbow jersey, Millar was eager to share his goals with Mangeas and the assembled crowd.
"First of all, I'm the leader of the team, so that's my primary role," Millar explained. "I have several objectives, and it's true that the biggest is I suppose a certain revenge to take in the prologue of the Tour. This year is special because on the fourth day we arrive in Wasquehal, home of Cofidis. After that are the Olympics, which for me as a Briton are huge and François Migraine has given me a bit of carte blanche to prepare."
Millar, who is so closely associated with the team and its ups and downs, particularly after the fiasco of his mechanical troubles which arguably cost him the yellow jersey in this year's Tour prologue, also embodies the enthusiasm of the team heading into 2004.
"We've never had a team like this," Millar said of this season's line up. "We can be in the top five in the world, and I think in two years we can be the number one team. For sure... I'm convinced of it."
Images by Chris Henry/Cyclingnews