There are few traditions in cycling more proud than the institution of Caisse d'Epargne. Eusebio Unzue's team traces its roots back to 1980 -- a relative eternity by the sport's current standards -- and the Reynolds team of Pedro Delgado. Ten years and two grand tour wins later, the team morphed into Banesto, Spain's greatest outfit, which won five Tours, two Giros and a Vuelta during its fifteen-year rampage. Illes Balears bridged the gap for a year before Caisse d'Epargne, another bank, took title sponsorship. Meanwhile, Spanish cycling lost the Kelme juggernaut, and ONCE-Liberty Seguros imploded in scandal. That leaves only the Saunier Duval (now Fuji-Servetto) mess, and the distinctly regional Euskaltel team on the Spanish scene... which means that this team is the face of Spanish Cycling. No small matter, for the country which gave us in 2008 the winners of the Olympics, all three grand tours, and the UCI Pro Tour.
All that said, Caisse d'Epargne haven't made a real shot at world team supremacy. They have a true wealth of assets, but they aren't particularly well distributed, and their ceiling is high, as opposed to sky-high. Nobody wins races in Spain more thoroughly, but abroad there are a handful of major targets within reach that never seem to materialize. For starters, I am done projecting them as a great grand tour team, after wasting too much space on this last year. They are good, and have potential to be great, and I'd even go so far as to say they had a fairly rotten run of luck at times. The key question for this team is whether they are the team of great riders that comes close but never quite expresses its full potential, or whether the big breakout is truly just around the corner.
Attributes: When the road goes up, they're the answer to CSC/Saxo. Among the guys who can win in the hills are David Arroyo, Vasil Kiryienka, David Lopez, Daniel Moreno, Joaquin Rodriguez, Luis Leon Sanchez, Rigoberto Uran, and of course Alejandro Valverde. When the hills are significant but not Alpine, count on Caisse d'Epargne getting numbers together and being major players in the finale. And if that finale includes a sprint, Valverde's closing speed makes them almost impossible to beat. He may not win Liege-Bastogne-Liege every year, by choice, but it's hard to picture him ever losing.
Problems: What do these guys do besides win sub-h.c. climby races? They don't really sprint. Their lone grand tour threats so far have been Valverde and Jose Ivan Gutierrez, two guys whose ceiling seems more like the lower podium steps than the win. They haven't made much of a team-wide effort in the cobbled classics, even after I practically begged them to last year... and now Joan Horrach has fled for greener pa$tures at Katyusha. They bang out time trials, but even that skill (of limited use as a team) is diminished in the loss of Vlad Karpets (again with the Katyusha?). They have the sport's narrowest range per overall talent ratio.
Key Rider: For Caisse to have a bigger haul, a la Columbia last year or Riis Cycling every year, the younger guys on the squad will have to grow up quickly and start winning. I'd look for Luis Leon Sanchez at Paris-Nice and continuing with JJ Rojas Gil in the cobbles. Then Rigoberto Uran, maybe bagging Catalunya or (more of a stretch) Pais Vasco. Sanchez is the oldest of this trio, a mere 25, so while it may be asking a lot for results in 2009, they -- along with Rui Costa -- probably represent the next generation of stars in the Unzue System. Valverde and J-Rod are only 29, so the urgency for these three to take over isn't dire, but if Caisse d'Epargne want to own the peloton, it's in their hands.
Key Moment(s): I have already named a few -- Paris-Nice, Catalunya, maybe even Het Nieuwsblad -- as examples of places where a win might give the team some needed momentum, particularly outside Spain. But Unzue has to be seriously jonesing for a grand tour, and the Vuelta might just be within reach... assuming the other teams exhaust themselves in Italy and France first. So let's go with September 13, the last of three hors-categoire mountain finishes in three days. If Caisse d'Epargne have control of the race by then, be it Valverde or someone else, they are highly unlikely to lose it.
Passing Thought: Unzue's white whale must surely be the signature of Alberto Contador on a contract. Contador, born and raised in Madrid, briefly flirted with "alleged offers" this offseason when Lance Armstrong joined Astana but decided to honor the last two years of his deal with Astana. By 2010 maybe Contador will be too far gone from home to return, but nobody will be surprised if he gives Caisse d'Epargne a hard look. With Contador in the fold, Caisse becomes the perfect Spanish team, dominant at home and abroad. Unzue gets back in the business of winning Tours, Valverde can concentrate more on single-day or shorter stage race events, Rodriguez plays stage-hunter/super domestique... everybody slots into place. If that window was open briefly this past summer, it shut quickly, before anyone (even Contador) knew what to do about it. I'm being somewhat inconsistent when I discuss alliances based on country of origin, because there are teams where it's thoroughly meaningless and teams where it isn't. Unzue would probably be happy with foreign-born winners, and like anyone he'd lust for Contador if Bert was born at the North Pole. But as the inheritor of the Reynolds/Banesto tradition, there's something too perfect about the Kid from Madrid riding and living at home, and bringing with him the cycling world's greatest prizes.