#13 â€“ Caisse dâ€™Epargne (Preview Ranking: #8)
What We Said:
While some might hate to admit it, the presence of one rider can often elevate a teamâ€™s status.Â As a matter of fact, weâ€™ll see that twice in todayâ€™s portion of ranking, beginning here with Alejandro Valverde and Caisse dâ€™Epargne.
Love him or hate him, Valverde is one heck of talented rider, and has to be considered a favorite in just about every race he entersâ€”excluding the Tour, of course. Valverdeâ€™s already started-off 2010 on a victorious note, taking the overall title in the Med Tour.Â His next big objectives are Paris-Nice, Catalunya, and Pais Vasco before hitting the Ardennesâ€”all winnable races for him.
Things get tricky for Valverde at the Tour though.Â The DauphinÃ© is one of his favorite races; his success there speaks volumes.Â But as soon as the calendar hits July itâ€™s as if Valverde becomes an entirely different rider: timid, unsure, and prone to mistakes.Â While I doubt he can do it, if he were to take the mentality and poise he displayed in last yearâ€™s Vuelta and combine it with his fitness level from last yearâ€™s DauphinÃ©, a solid Tour result would be likely.Â Iâ€™ll grant him one last Tour try, but if this year goes as poorly as it has in the past, I hope heâ€™ll settle for winning just about everything else.
Thereâ€™s more talent at Caisse dâ€™Epargne in the form of Luis Leon Sanchez, one of the savviest riders in the peloton.Â Sanchez can do it all when called upon, making him the most legitimate Tour leader for the Tour in Caisseâ€™s stable.Â One can only imagine what Sanchez could do if he were free to ride for himself.
Overall, this talented duo faces the difficult task of performing well enough to entice someone to replace Caisse dâ€™Epargne as title sponsor in 2011 and beyond.Â Thatâ€™s a tall order in times as tough as these.Â But if anyone is capable of pulling it off, itâ€™s Valverdeâ€”especially if heâ€™s ever allowed back in Italy.
Man of the Hour: Valverdeâ€”could there be anyone else?
On the Hot Seat: Eusebio Unzue needs to find a sponsorâ€”and fast.Â Not only is he looking down the barrel of unemployment, but heâ€™s also competing with Bjarne Riis and Gerry Van Gerwen, two men whose teams have lost title sponsors as well.
Up-and-Comer: Itâ€™s hard to call Sanchez an up-and-comer given how long heâ€™s been winning races.Â But heâ€™s only 26, and still receives surprisingly little credit for his talent.Â If he raced anywhere but in Spain, he would be one of the most talked-about young riders in the world.
Best Pick-Up: I like the additions of Marzio Bruseghin, Christophe Moreau, Juan Mauricio Soler, and Juan Jose Cobo.Â Individually, none of them bring much to write home about, but collectively, they provide an instant injection of experience, talent, and strength to Caisseâ€™s Tour squad.Â If only they had a leader with a proven track record of Tour success.
Biggest Loss: Caisse dâ€™Epargne (the bank) has supported cycling for many years; its departure will be sorely missedâ€”and not only in Spain.
What We Saw:
Remember when I said how the presence of one rider often elevates a teamâ€™s status? Well, we saw that play-out this season with Caisse dâ€™Epargne.Â No matter how hard they tried, their season was more less over the moment the Spaniardâ€™s suspension was upheld.
At the time of his suspension, Valverde was the #1-ranked rider in the world after winning the Med Tour, two stages at Pais Vasco, and a stage and the overall the Tour of Romandie.Â He also finished second overall at Paris-Nice and Pais Vasco, 3rd at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and 8th at Fleche Wallonne.Â Those are some pretty impressive results for only four months of racingâ€”but all were stricken from the record.
Without Valverde and his wins, Caisse dâ€™Epargne did its best to live up to their sponsorâ€™s expectationsâ€”after all, with Caisse dâ€™Epargne leaving after the completion of the season, they were essentially fighting for their livelihoods.
Of the teamâ€™s 12 official wins, Luis Leon Sanchez took sixâ€”the best of which was his win in the Classica San Sebastian.Â Portugalâ€™s Rui Costa was next on the list with 3 victories to his name including a stage at the Tour de Suisse.
Unfortunately, the team was shut out at the Tour de France, a surprise considering the squadâ€™s penchant for putting a skilled rider in just about every break.Â Vasil Kiriyenka and Luis Leon Sanchez came closest on Stages 9 and 10, but in the end, Caisseâ€™s grand tour glory was confined to the Vuelta, where David Lopez and Imanol Ervitti took two winsâ€”oddly enough, on Stages 9 and 10.
But despite the low win total, Caisse dâ€™Epargne raced aggressively all season, with several men placing well in an abundance of races. Down Under, Paris-Nice, Tirreno, Catalunya, Sarthe, Dunkirk, Switzerland, Burgos, Limousin, and Lombardyâ€”Eusebio Unzueâ€™s boys were at the front of them all.
And in the end, in spite of Valverde, his reputation, and his suspension, the program was able to find a new sponsorâ€”Movistarâ€”and will live to fight another season.
Most Valuable Rider: While he did little to increase his teamâ€™s chances of securing a new sponsor, Valverdeâ€™s absence made clear his value to the team.
Biggest Disappointment: The Movistar deal must have come too late for some riders, as several signed contracts elsewhere for 2011 including Sanchez, Cobo, Costa, and Rigoberto Uran.
Biggest Surprise: Caisse dâ€™Epargne was held without a stage win in this yearâ€™s Tour de France, a bit of a surprise considering they lacked a true leader for GC.Â Sanchez and Ruben Plaza finished 11th and 12th on GC, thoughâ€”not a bad result for the two Spaniards. (See comments below for a better pick!)
Thatâ€™s about does it for #13 in our Team-By-Team Season Reviewâ€”come back soon for #12.
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