Another Tour, another contentious home-team wild card selection by the race organisers. Like RAGT Semences before them, Agritubel have secured their place in this year’s race almost completely thanks to their French connection: they aren’t even in the top ten of the Continental ranking. However, they will be looking to prove the naysayers wrong and show during the three weeks in July that they merit their place. Though the team have no conspicuous big names, there is Tour stage winner and Vuelta top-five finisher Juan Miguel Mercado, time-trial specialist Jose Alberto Martinez and former Tour white jersey Benoit Salmon in a team consisting entirely of French or Spanish riders. Even if they do fail to impress, it won’t be for lack of trying: Agritubel riders will be attempting to get in as many breaks as possible to show the sponsor’s name.
Juan Miguel Mercado
Mercado and the Agritubel squad at team presentation
Photo c. Agritubel
Born: 8 July 1978 (27 years old)
Since turning pro as early at the age of twenty with Banesto and impressing early on, Juan Miguel Mercado's career has gone a bit off track. After promising in 2001 by winning the Vuelta a Burgos and then finishing fifth in the Vuelta, Mercado seemed to fade, despite winning the 2002 Volta a Catalunya. Though he’s won stages of the Dauphiné and the Tour (a stage into Lons-le-Saunier two years ago) in recent years, a move to Quick Step did not help his prospects. Last year, he looked to be back to something resembling his best, winning the Tour of Austria and finishing ninth in the Vuelta. Although he normally suffers a bad day in the mountains and is not the best of time-trial riders by any stretch of the imagination, Mercado could shine when the race hits the Pyrenees. His team would be delighted with a stage win in the mountains, and the mercurial Spaniard is their best option.
Jose Alberto Martinez
Born: 10 September 1975, Spain (30)
Role: Time-trial specialist/rouleur
Jose Alberto Martinez is another Spaniard who was touted as a hope for the future who lost his way and now finds himself riding for Agritubel. Though the time-trial is his best discipline, the Spaniard compounds this with competent climbing ability: he won this year’s Bayern Rundfahrt that way, backing up a second-place time-trial finish. A past winner of the Criterium International and third in the 1999 Midi Libre, Martinez has never graced the Tour de France, even during his six-year spell with Euskaltel, but he will be looking for a top 20 finish in the prologue and the two longer time-trials, while a top 40 finish is possible overall.
Born: 9 April 1974, France (32)
The last Frenchman to win the white jersey for best U25 rider, Salmon has since fallen on harder fortunes. For a brief moment, he was the great (white) hope for French cycling, after he won the Midi Libre and finished second in the Classique des Alpes before supporting these performances with sixteenth place and the maillot blanc. Though he did finish third in the 2001 Dauphiné, the man from Dinan never hit those heights again. After failing to impress with Phonak or Crédit Agricole, he moved to Agritubel at the start of 2005. Though he has shown few signs of form, Salmon could surprise in the mountains and, at any rate, is likely to be in a couple of breakaways.
Born: 16 January 1980, France (26)
Of all the riders on the Agritubel squad, Cedric Coutouly has arguably been the best so far this season. He hit a purple patch in March and April, scoring two second places in Paris-Troyes and semi-classic Paris-Camembert, as well as third in the Trophee Luc Leblanc and fourth at the Memorial Samyn. Coutouly is known for his attacking riding – as we were treated to in the recent Dauphiné - and this will certainly suit Agritubel’s plans in this year’s Tour. Look out for him in the first week especially, as he could be a dark horse to wear polka dots as the peloton goes over Cat 3 and 4 pimples.
Eduardo Gonzalo with his winner’s trophy at the Tour d’Isere
Photo c. Agritubel
Eduardo Gonzalo Ramirez
Born: 25 August 1983, Spain (22)
Only Coutouly and Eduardo Gonzalo are in the top 100 of the continental ranking. However, considering that Gonzalo is only 22, his achievement is all the more impressive. This year, he has won stages from breakaways at the Tour du Nord-Isere and the Circuit de Lorraine, outsprinting his remaining opponents with powerful bursts of speed. He also finished on the podium in the overall for both races. Agritubel did well to snap Gonzalo up, considering he won the Ronde de l’Isard, one of the most prestigious U23 races, in 2005. Undoubtedly, the Spaniard will be one of the only neo-pros and one of the youngest men in the race, and it should be good experience for him, first and foremost, though we could catch a glimpse or two of his ability in the mountains.
Moises Duenas Nevado
Born: 10 May 1981, Spain (25)
Another one of Agritubel’s Spanish contingent, Moises Duenas had two good years with the Relax team, including top ten finishes in the Vuelta a Asturias, Vuelta a Burgos and fourth in the Tour de l’Avenir. Although he has shown little form so far this year, Duenas is a promising rider and directeur sportif Denis Leproux has marked the twenty-five year old man down as one of their climbers. However, it is more likely he will finish – if at all – in mid-pack anonymity. Like compatriot Gonzalo, Duenas is also eligible for the Young Riders jersey.
Christophe Laurent in polka dots in this year’s Paris-Nice
Photo c. Agritubel
Born: 26 July 1977, France (29)
Poached from fellow Tour wild-card entry RAGT Semences, Laurent should be one of Agritubel’s main men in the first ten days, as he has a knack for infiltrating the right breakaways. He almost won the mountains classification in this year’s edition of Paris-Nice, but lost it on the last day. The twenty-nine year old has Tour experience, having finished the 2004 race in 134th.
Born: March 5 1976, France (30)
Monsieur Plouhinec has certainly been round the block in professional cycling: the man from Le Mans rode with Cofidis in 1998 and 1999 before moving to Jean Delatour for two years. However, he didn’t ride a Grand Tour and went back into the Elite-2 ranks. After enjoying a fine season with Bretagne-Jean Floc’h last year, which included a Tour de l’Ain stage win and third place finish, Plouhinec transferred to Agritubel and, at the age of thirty, he (finally) finds himself riding the Tour de France. One of the better climbers on board, as last week’s ninth overall at the mountainous Route du Sud suggests, it’s likely he’ll be looking to get to Paris, as well as in a breakaway or two.
Manuel Calvente Gorbas
Born: 14 August 1976 (29), Spain
After turning professional very late, in 2002, with Bjarne Rijs’ CSC-Tiscali, Calvente spent four quiet years with them before being allowed to go to Agritubel. Though not many will recognise his name, he has finished in the top thirty twice in the Vuelta, his best finish being 23rd last year. He will find it harder going in the Tour de France, but Calvente will be a good attacking option in the mountains and he certainly wouldn’t mind getting one over his former employers.
Agritubel for the 2006 Tour de France
Juan Miguel Mercado (Esp)
Jose Alberto Martinez (Esp)
Benoit Salmon (Fra)
Cedric Coutouly (Fra)
Eduardo Gonzalo Ramirez (Esp)
Moises Duenas (Esp)
Christophe Laurent (Fra)
Samuel Plouhinec (Fra)
Manuel Calvente Gorbas (Esp)
Interview with Directeur Sportif Denis Leproux
Denis Leproux, what will be your personal approach to this race, in which you’ve raced once before (39th in 1998 with BigMat Auber 93) as opposed to as a rider? What does the Tour mean for you?
For a lot of riders, the Tour de France is a dream. Me, I was at the end of my carrier and it was nice. It remains a great adventure. You really have to do it at least one time to realise this.
What will be the realistic aims for Agritubel?
As announced on the official site of the Tour de France (www.letour.fr), I will restate that one or two riders (Juan-Miguel Mercado and Benoit Salmon notably) in the first twenty or thirty would be already satisfying. If not, obviously to show the jersey and to play the role of barodeur. Moreover, if the Mercado of 2004 is found again, we could see a stage victory in the mountains. Maybe also to keep an eye on the polka-dot jersey with Miguel, and also the white jersey for Eduardo [Gonzalo] or even Moises [Duenas].
“On the subject of riders composing the announced team, what do you think of their start to the season?”
Christophe, Benoit and Cédric have made themselves seen regularly. Samuel has appeared since the Euskal Bizikleta. For Alberto, we are obviously very happy (note: victory in the Criterium International time-trial and the overall at the Tour of Bacaria), all the same for Eduardo (winner of stages in the Tours of Isere and Lorraine). Manuel had an excellent Ruta del Sol but was then quiet. As for Miguel and Moises, they are doing well even if they were up there in the Dauphiné. However, they are going to improve themselves and we will be able to see them occasionally. In all senses, Mercado knows his body well and knows how to prepare (Mercado and Calvente spent fifteen days in preparation in Sierra Nevada, their home in Andalucia). We will see.”
This edition doesn’t seem as mountainous as others and it seems to favour the rouleurs. Your opinion?
A Tour is never easy. If it is true that the Pyrenees seem less hard than in certain years, on the other hand, the Alps are far from simple. Even if you ignore the mainly-flat time-trials, there are lots of difficulties. Moreover, if you ask me my favourite, I would say Ullrich without hesitation, even if Basso will not be far off.
What will be the first rendez-vous for Agritubel and the expected preview of the race?
The prologue with Jose-Alberto Martinez, who has a card to play in Strasbourg; to finish well there. Then, in the first week, we will go on the attack with barodeurs of the style of Christophe and Cedric. The others will have to reserve themselves before the mountains. There remains a lot of questions all the same. The Tour will be open. Who will take the course by the scruff of the neck in place of the Discovery Channel riders of Armstrong? CSC? T-Mobile? I forsee a break taking twenty minutes like the one including Simon and Kivilev or that of Voeckler’s in 2004. We will know soon; it starts quickly.
Thanks to www.agritubel-cycling.com for information, pictures and the interview.