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2007 Team Reviews: Escape from Operacion Puerto!

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To hurry things along, I'm going to start combining these posts a bit. Had I thought of this sooner, I surely would have bundled Rabobank and Saunier Duval, for obvious reasons. Ah, regrets.

Today's look back concerns the two teams most closely associated with Operacion Puerto: Caisse d'Epargne and Discovery Channel. While this isn't an obvious connection, I think it's significant for this post: nothing affected the success or failure of teams as much as doping scandals, or so you'd think. Operacion Puerto, more so than most scandals, hung like the sword of Damocles over the heads of anyone foolish enough to harbor suspects from this sordid affair. And when it came to harboring suspects, nobody in the Pro Tour outdid Caisse d'Epargne and Disco.

Caisse d'Epargne

As I wrote this post in my head, I imagined Caisse d'Epargne suffering a steady erosion of results and CQ or Pro Tour points as the Valverde dilemma weighted down the team. I even picked out a team theme song: Ball and Chain by Social Distortion. As usual, the numbers don't support me. The Boys in Black finished second in CQ points (up from sixth) and third on the Pro Tour. While Valverde was mired in his own personal torment, the following riders were turning in quality seasons: (by CQ ranking, 2006 in (parens))

  1. Valverde (2)
  2. Karpets (67)
  3. Joaquin Rodriguez (166)
  4. Efimkin (227)
  5. J.I. Gutierrez (70)
  6. David Lopez (594)
  7. JJ Rojas Gil (314)
  8. Luis Leon Sanchez (123)
Mind you, this list fails to include 2006 Tour de France champion Oscar Pereiro (172nd), David Arroyo, Constantino Zaballa, Xavier Zandio, or other occasional protagonists. Caisse d'Epargne have a fat, or even phat, roster, and it isn't an approach they'll be ditching soon.

The problems, if you can call them that, start and end at the top. How Alejandro Valverde functions at all is beyond me. His career right now is in shackles, unable to break free of the Puerto speculation. Officially, the investigation and the interpretations by the team contain no legitimate basis for prosecuting Valverde. But the dope-fighters of the world are unanimous in their certainty that the proof of the Green Bullet's malfeasance is sitting on a shelf in Madrid. The rider himself could do something about it, but his lawyers would have him committed first. So he keeps racing, keeps drawing a salary, and keeps getting hit with new forms of pointless speculation.

Why this is a problem is that Caisse d'Epargne are counting on him to be their biggest star on the biggest stage. So while racking up win after win across Europe may be cathartic, they're on shaky ground with Valverde in the Monuments or the Tour. Of course, even subtracting Puerto Valverde is an unproven grand tour racer, with last year's late slip in the Vuelta his best effort. [Ironically, he may only have lost because he didn't dope up like Vino.] Worse, though, he didn't defend his wins at La Fleche or Liege, where his sprinting should always give him the edge. Did he have a season to be proud of? Sure, most riders would switch places in a heartbeat. But Valverde is the face of the team, and the signature wins are in the hands of a guy fighting against a lot more than the road or his bike. How can it not be depressing?

Discovery Channel

Speaking of theme songs, the counterpart to my above suggestion would be one for these guys: Don't Let It Bring You Down by Neil Young. A classic... and a pretty fair description of how Discovery responded to its own scandal taint. Nobody scooped up OP suspects with more zeal than Johan Bruyneel, and though they almost (or maybe did) pay with their lives for the utter catastrophe known as Ivan Basso, they also struck pure gold in Alberto Contador. Allan Davis was more than useful as well.

Discovery's situation was unlike Caisse or T-Mobile: as far as the Guardia Civil was concerned, Operacion Puerto didn't happen on Disco's watch. Bruyneel apparently expected the team's clean sheet and the freeing of Basso, Contador and Davis meant they'd be left to their racing, but he poisoned relations for the team with their fellow Pro Tour managers, and Basso's eventual confession made them confirmed hypocrites. Undaunted, Bruyneel stuck to his overall plans and went on a stage-race rampage. The wins:

Paris-Nice (Contador)
Vuelta a Castilla y Leon (Contador)
Tour de France (Contador)
Tour of Austria (Devolder)
Tour de Georgia (Brajkovic)
Tour of Belgium (Gusev)
Tour of California (Leipheimer)
Tour of Missouri (Hincapie)

None of this stopped them from slipping in the overall standings, from 2nd to 5th (albeit only by a few dozen points). Injuries and illness to Tom Danielson and George Hincapie robbed them of two valued contributors, and at least in Hincapie's case there was no replacement. Still, Bruyneel seemed to get the veterans/youth balace right on his second try of the post-Lance era, and if the team were a going concern, they'd have an incredible future. Not only does the Accountant appear relatively free of his own OP doubts, but his ascendancy from nowhere to the yellow jersey was probably the story of the year, if anyone wanted to hear it. A Discovery 2008 team would undoubtedly surround their tag-team of Contador and Leipheimer with Tour-quality support, while coaching Devolder and Gusev on the finer points of Classics riding. Hincapie's window on Flanders or Roubaix figures to have a year left, and the sprint team would figure to grab some points on occasion as well.

If only... Hey, it was a great ride, and they went out on a high note. Not even Basso could stop them in the end. Well, on the road at least.