Blazin' Saddles

Why the world should be Europcar’s oyster

Blazin' Saddles

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If any team deserves to be bailed out by a co-sponsor it's Jean-Rene Bernaudeau's Europcar, whose future is once again under the spotlight as the car rental company's current deal approaches its climax.

Cycling without Europcar the team would be a sorry place: who, under one roof, could promise the combined visual delights of Voeckler's tongue, Gaudin's swaying swimmer's shoulders and Rolland's downhill wobbles?

Heck, who would there be to utterly dominate the Tropicale Amissa Bongo or to lead the peloton onto the Koppenberg before disappearing without a trace?

More to the point, has any second-tier team – any French team, full stop – performed as consistently high not only in the Tour de France – but across the board in a variety of races as Europcar?

But here we are in the ridiculous scenario where Jean-Rene the driver is edging closer to the airport departure gate knowing he has to still refill the tank of his revving vehicle before dropping it off back at the Europcar hire depo.

If the likes of Cofidis and Euskaltel still exist – apparently, they do – then surely Europcar's presence in professional cycling should be as sure as a Peter Sagan victory in Amstel Gold this weekend.

But Jean-Rene 'Glass Half Empty' Bernaudeau has spoken out this week about his concerns for the future, telling l'Equipe that he not only needs his main sponsor to sign up for another three years, but also a co-sponsor to step in.

The avuncular Frenchman wants to raise his team's budget from the current seven million Euro to at least nine – fascinating numbers when you take into account BMC's annual budget of 20 million.

Bernaudeau doesn't want more money so he can snap up star riders. (What good does that do? Despite boasting three world champions past and present on their books, BMC have just three wins to their name this season; Europcar have notched nine more.)

Bernaudeau's interested in maintaining the status quo while offering his current crop of predominantly French home-grown talent an incentive to stay on with the team.

"I want to give a rider like Gaudin the technical support he needs such as a mental coach," Bernaudeau said.

He then did not add: "I want to give a rider like Turgot the mechanical support he needs during races such as Paris-Roubaix."

Bernaudeau did say that he lived in fear of the big budget teams like Sky and BMC poaching his current crop of promising riders by dangling a cash carrot incentive – as well as promises of better infrastructure and expensive training methods.

"It's obvious that the boss of Sky could make him [Damien Gaudin] win Paris-Roubaix before I can," said Bernaudeau. He clearly forgot that for all his millions, David Brailsford has so far failed to produce a classics winner in Sky's three and a bit years on the road. This season, despite an expensive training camp in Tenerife, Sky were not even close to making the podium of the three Monuments so far ridden.

Europcar, on the other hand, have excelled. Yes, they too have not made a podium – but Gaudin's fifth place in Roubaix was magnificent to watch and the team has been ever present in the cobbled campaign.

They have done so by being canny. Two and a bit years ago when Europcar came in to save the team after previous sponsor Bouygues Telecom put the phone down, Bernaudeau gave directeur sportif Dominique Arnould carte blanche to work on the squad's classics performance, with a particular emphasis put on the cobbled races in Flanders and north France.

Arnould has instilled a do-or-die attitude and has completely turned round the team's mentality and approach to racing. Granted, it doesn't always work out: in Flanders a few weeks back it was more a case of do-and-die as Europcar took early control of the race with their fierce pace-setting before seeing their men completely blown out of contention.

But their tactics worked in Roubaix last weekend, with Gaudin putting in a mesmerisingly metronomic performance – beautiful in its sheer dogged ugliness – to take fifth, while Sebastien Turgot could well have followed up last year's second-place with another high finish had he not punctured and needed to rely on his team manager for what was perhaps the slowest and most agonising wheel change since Cadel Evans flatted in the Vuelta a few years back.

Europcar, in short, have managed to improve their classics performance not by spending big or overturning their philosophy – but by hard graft, tweaking, trial and error. Compare that to another equally parochial team in a similar financial quagmire – Euskaltel – and Bernaudeau's expert management is all too apparent.

Euskaltel this year have been shoehorned into compromising on their philosophy by bringing in non-Basque riders – but to what effect? One failed drugs test for EPO – EPO! This is 2013! At least try something new and current! – and a string of quite frankly rubbish performances in the classics.

The only Euskaltel rider we saw during the entire Paris-Roubaix feed was one that hit the deck towards the back of the peloton and landed in a road-side flower bed. While the orange of his jersey looked rather splendid alongside the yellow daffodils and red geraniums, you wouldn't want to place that bouquet of Basque (probably not even Basque anymore) bawling anywhere but in Sagan's post-Ronde pre-podium kiss right hand.

While judging Euskaltel on their Flandrian classics campaign is about as fair as judging Mark Renshaw on his sprinting abilities – it's worth adding that in their home Tour of the Basque Country, the boys in orange were almost as absent as the sun in British spring time.

So, onto the big question... provided Bernaudeau can keep Europcar on side beyond 2013, who should he approach as co-sponsor?

Well, Saddles has been thinking long and hard at this and he thinks there's scope for Bernaudeau to cash in (quite literally) on the whole Euro thing.

Top of the list must be Eurostar, the high-speed train running between London and Paris. Given sprinter Bryan Coquard's fast development – and his silver medal at the London Olympics last summer – then surely that's an endorsement ready to happen. The Coquard High Speed Train could be talk of all the French hair salons and petanque courts in years to come.

And with both Eurostar and Europcar on board, the team would only have to enlist the help of Holiday Inn (whose colours are... green and yellow...) and they'd have the whole tourist market sewn up. After all, what is the Tour de France but one big marketing campaign for France's tourism industry?

Another ten days in yellow for Europcar-Eurostar-Holiday Inn's Thomas Voeckler would swell Bernaudeau's coffers so much he wouldn't need to sign BMC's three world champions – he's just create the next three of his own.

Should Holiday Inn not be keen to get onboard the train/car/van then there's always Club Med rival Pierre & Vacances. Not only would the accommodation for the team's training camps be sorted in a jiffy, the marketing campaign would be as brilliant as it is obvious: Pierre Rolland – by then perhaps a top-three Tour rider – in a series of adverts showing off his off-season holidays, with a line like "Once you've earned your holiday like me then you should really spoil yourself... at Pierre & Vacances".

Going back to the whole Euro theme – Bernaudeau must be wary about going over the top. As much fun as a tie-up with Eurotrash and the Eurovision Song Contest would be – apologies American readers, this will be Greek to you – performance levels may drop a notch with Antoine de Caunes as DS and the likes of Terry Wogan and Graham Norton as soigneurs.

A far better collaboration would be with the Euromillions lottery, for obvious reasons. It would make FDJ look like some provincial game of bingo – which, ironically, it probably is.

Why stop there – a deal with the Eurozone could be handy. And Bernaudeau may be prepared to take on a couple of Cypriot riders for a small slice of the 23bn euros heading to the beleaguered Mediterranean isle.

While it would be tempting for the team to use various Eurotrance and Europop anthems as a soundtrack to their training and marketing material, surely the traditional aspect of Bernaudeau's methods would lean towards some kind of partnership with Swedish glam metal outfit Europe.

So, pucker up Jean-Rene, the end of the season doesn't have to mark The Final Countdown for Europcar – it could be the start of something quite remarkable. As for the need for a wind tunnel – come on, man, improvise. Perhaps just take your riders back home to the notoriously blustery Vendee coast? It would beat Tenerife, hands down.

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