It’s easy to ignore the ProTour’s hot stove season. After all, most of the superstar transfers are finalized well before the World Championships, and we admit our interest in the World Cup cyclocross scene is quite dim. The sleepy autumn and early winter months provide ample opportunity to rest not just our legs, but our interest in race results and gossip. Provocative stories are always there for the having, though, and as much as we tried to hibernate for a bit this fall we couldn’t help but keep one eye on the slow-motion train wreck otherwise known as the Sony Ericsson saga.
Many of you are likely familiar with the name Giancarlo Ferretti. He was indisputably the most important directeur sportif in the pro peloton in the last 10-12 years. Not unlike the way riders beg and plead to get on Team CSC nowadays in order to work under Bjarne Riis, for over a decade Ferretti actualized every last ounce of potential in countless now-legendary pros. Michele Bartoli, Alessando Petacchi, Fabio Baldato, Francesco Casagrande, and Ivan Basso asserted themselves as big-time champions under Ferretti’s tutelage. In the last 5 seasons his Fassa Bortolo team amassed an amazing 232 victories — including 4 World Cup races and 50 stages in the Grand Tours. Fassa’s 5-year run maintained a tradition of dominance from Ferretti teams that stretched back to his days running MG-Technogym and Ariostea in the 1990’s.
Midway through the 2005 season Fassa Bortolo announced that they wouldn’t extend their sponsorship into 2006. The Fassa team budget was reported to be in the range of 15-20 million Euros per year, and amazingly Ferretti announced that for 2006 he was seeking out a budget of 30 million Euros for his new team. Even though he hadn’t secured a sponsor, top-notch riders turned down guaranteed offers from other teams in order to work with Ferretti in what was going to be cycling’s version of the Bronx Bombers.
Summer turned into fall and the cat came out of the bag: Ferretti had successfully courted his big money. Sony Ericsson, the Swedish telecom behemoth, was alleged to be the title sponsor of an organization that by then had amassed nearly 30 riders and staff. It was a shocker, then, when the nice folks at Sony Ericsson announced to the world’s cycling press that no one was more surprised by the sponsorship rumor mill than them. At no point, they stated, had they ever been in negotiation with Ferretti or anyone else involved with the ProTour. Long story short: Ferretti had unknowingly been the victim of a con-man who claimed to be a Sony Ericsson representative. The team infrastructure immediately collapsed under the weight of its nothingness, and it was a catastrophe for everyone involved. By then team rosters were finalized worldwide. Riders begged a ride for a cut-rate salary from any ProTour team that would listen. For the first time in recent memory Ferretti would spend a season on the sidelines. Collateral damage was everywhere, including the sharp pain that stung in Treviso, Italy, hometown of Cicli Pinarello.
Pinarello had sponsored Fassa Bortolo since the team’s inception and they derived monstrous exposure from it. The exploits of Petacchi alone justified the steep cost of the sponsorship, but keep in mind that Fassa won races year-round, worldwide — a Ferretti hallmark — reason enough for Pinarello to commit early to his phantom team. When Sony Ericsson went bust, you could hear the ‘Oh shit, what do we do now?’ from across the ocean. Fassa was the focal point of Pinarello’s global marketing strategy, and it vanished like a thief in the night.
We need to back up a bit: Pinarello has always been quite clever — and quite lucky — in their sponsorship tactics. There was a time, in fact, (2002 and 2003 as we recall) that they sponsored three truly world-class teams — Fassa, Deutsche Telekom (the predecessor to T-Mobile), and Banesto (the predecessor to Illes Balears). In 2004 this fantastic exposure took a troubling step backward as T-Mobile jumped to Giant thanks to the king’s ransom paid by Taiwan’s leading bike manufacturer. To make matters worse, Banesto chose to leave the pro cycling scene after scoring massive publicity from the five-peat Tour de France performance of Miguel Indurain. In their place came what was perhaps the UCI’s lowest-budget Division 1 team ever, Illes Balears. Pinarello had already slated Illes Balears to ride their new brand of bikes, Opera Bike (think of Opera Bike as Maserati in comparison to Ferrari — the same brilliant brains behind their design, plus the same materials and manufacturing processes at play, but nevertheless brand prestige chronically lagged). So from 3 highly visible teams, Pinarello bikes were found under only 1 team in 2004.
Despite the rocky off-season, Pinarello came out smelling like a rose in ’04 thanks to Petacchi’s field-sprint stranglehold in the Giro (he won something like 8 or 9 stages) and Fassa’s knack for winning 1-day races by the truckload. Icing on the cake was Illes Balears’ Vladimir Karpets’ white jersey victory in the Tour de France on his Opera Bike Leonardo. Did Pinarello dodge a bullet? They’ll smile and say ‘Bullet?’ But we know the truth: Dodge, they did.
Pinarello’s uncanny talent at extracting good fortune from unpromising circumstances reached new heights in 2005. Petacchi fulfilled every Italian schoolboy’s dream by pummeling all comers in a field sprint at Milan-San Remo. But after that glorious March afternoon he had a hard time reasserting the dominance of 2004. Some said he lost too much weight dieting to get over the Cipressa at the tail-end of Milan-San Remo, and his high-end power was the worse for it. Others said his leadout train was weaker in ’05. Still, others asked how much you could possibly expect of one rider when literally 19 teams keyed off his every move in the last 20km of every flat race. Pick your favorite excuse, but outside of MSR Petacchi didn’t lack in frustrated ambition.
Redemption for Pinarello came in the least likely place: Illes Balears. Spaniard Alejandro Valverde rode his Opera Bike to a diversity of top results in ’05 like we haven’t seen since Sean Kelly and Bernard Hinault graced the peloton. As you likely recall, he throttled Lance Armstrong, Michael Rasmussen, and a handful of other climbing specialists in a sprint finish atop Courchevel in stage 10 of the Tour de France, and then nearly outsprinted Tom Boonen for the rainbow jersey at the World’s in Madrid. We challenge you: Name us one rider since Kelly who could win a world-class field sprint smackdown in the same year he legitimately contended on a mountaintop finish. Yeah, Stephen Roche was a multi-dimensional rider, but he would’ve been lost against Jean Paul van Poppel or Davis Phinney. And Laurent Jalabert mastered the art of sprinting and the art of climbing at different parts of his career. What Valverde did last year (and what he has the potential to do this year) is frightening. We love Tom Boonen, but he’ll be on the autobus in the Alps. We love Ivan Basso, but he’ll leap into the nearest foxhole as soon as the sprinters begin banging bars. Valverde is the 21st century definition of versatility, and because of it the world cycling press has beat a path to his door giving Illes Balears and Opera Bike exposure like it never had before.
Given the Sony Ericsson implosion, Pinarello found itself in a PR mess. There are only 20 ProTour teams, and each of the 20 teams already had a bike sponsor (the Fassa ProTour license held by Ferretti was eventually awarded/sold to a 2nd-rate French team whose name we’ve already forgotten. Surely Laurent Brochard races for them, and surely he’ll provide them the highlight of their year with a solo win in the G.P Plouay.) The Tour of Qatar (the inagural ProTour race on the ’06 calendar) was only weeks away, and the world’s sexiest bike brand found themselves seemingly out of options for a marketing and P.R. focal point. That is, until someone had a very bright idea: Yank all the Opera Bikes out of Illes Balears’ stable, and replace them with Pinarellos instead. Heck, Petacchi long ago announced that was leaving Ferretti to move to the Colnago-sponsored team Milram. An awful lot of guaranteed publicity vaporized when that happened. Given Valverde’s skyrocketing profile, the potential arguably exists that Illes Balears might indeed garner more high-profile results that a Petacchi-less team led by Ferretti. Call it fate, call it a stroke of luck Pinarello didn’t know it wanted or needed, call it whatever you want, but it was easily the most intriguing story of the off-season.
The team is no longer known merely as Illes Balears. In 2006 they’ll be called Caisse d’Epargne/Illes Balears. Gone is the flashy, splashy, beautiful green/yellow/white team strip, and in its place is a stark, oceanic blue (befitting a team whose main sponsor promotes Mediterranean tourism) — a more mature look for a team loaded with riders whose talents and whose on-the-job training is now sufficient to put them in contention in any race at any time, not unlike what Fassa Bortolo became so well known for. Alejandro Valverde, Vladimir Karpets, Francisco Mancebo, and Vincente Reyes. Remember their names — each has long-simmering potential ready to boil over.
Why are we summarizing the Ferretti and Pinarello saga? Actually, it’s our longwinded way of making a rather simple announcement to our customers: In celebration of their recent sponsorship of Caisse d’Epargne/Illes Balears, Pinarello is releasing a team edition version of their two best-loved bicycles, the Dogma FP and the Paris Carbon. They’ll be painted and decaled identically to what you’ll see the team race throughout 2006. We already have them on order, and we expect to see them here by late May or early June. The cost of each model is the same as the non-Team version, and rather the more pressing issue will be their limited availability.