Hints and Allegations

Just wanted to do a quick follow-on to yesterday’s post, which wondered, based on admittedly slim evidence, whether or not Francisco Mancebo is planning a jump from Rock Racing to Caisse d’Epargne. Having not heard back yet from either team, we still don’t know for sure whether there’s any truth to the matter or not (though the folks from Rock & Republic did pay the site a visit before ignoring the request). What we do know as of this morning is that Caisse d’ Epargne doesn’t plan to start him in the Clasica San Sebastian either way – they’ve released their roster this morning. Mancebo has also been removed from the start list at cyclingnews.com as of mid-morning.

Still, doesn’t it seem strange that Mancebo’s name would appear on the start list of Eusebio Unzué’s squad entirely without rhyme or reason? Sure, there’s the fact that his full name is Francisco Mancebo Perez, and the team also boasts a Francisco Perez Sanchez, so I suppose that could cause confusion for someone quickly typing up a start list, especially for someone who has typed most riders' names dozens of times. The problem with that is that in the earlier cyclingnews.com version of the start list, both Mancebo Perez and Perez Sanchez were listed. (Perez remains listed in Caisse’s official roster of this morning.)

Also counting against the “innocent mistake” argument is the undeniably long and fruitful association between Mancebo and Unzué’s outfits. Mancebo turned professional in 2000 with Banesto, the team with which Unzué directed Miguel Indurain to five Tour de France and two Giro d’ Italia wins. Before that, the team was known as Reynolds, with which Pedro Delgado scored his Tour de France win. In that neo-pro season, Mancebo won the white jersey of the best young rider in the 2000 Tour de France, setting his countrymen to wondering whether he would be the next great Spanish GC hope. Mancebo didn’t turn out to be an overnight Tour candidate, but he followed up that neo-pro season with a number of quality wins, staying on with Unzué as the team morphed into iBanesto.com, Illes Balears-Banesto, and finally to Illes Balears-Caisse d’ Epargne. He also made steady progress in his GC placings, capping off his time with Unzué with a personal best 4th place in the 2005 Tour de France and a 3rd place in the Vuelta a Espana.

Following that performance, Mancebo finally left Unzué’s squad (which would become Caisse d’Epargne in 2006) for Ag2r, where he wouldn’t have to compete with an ascendant Alejandro Valverde for team leadership. Shortly after, Mancebo’s number came up in the Operacion Puerto scandal, and he was subsequently prevented from starting the 2006 Tour de France. He announced his retirement from cycling, but mounted a return the following year with the Spanish second-tier Relax-GAM before sliding to the anonymous Fercase-Paredes squad in 2008. In 2009, he signed with the often troubled U.S. Rock Racing squad, where he raced alongside other Puerto refugees Oscar Sevilla and Tyler Hamilton. He’s achieved some reasonable results in that time, including making an impression in several Spanish appearances, but Rock Racing’s continental license doesn’t allow him to compete in the biggest events.

Now, reviewing that history, does it seem like a coincidence that Mancebo’s name would pop up under the Caisse d’ Epargne name? And, does it seem that far fetched to think that, given half a chance, Mancebo wouldn’t get on a flight tomorrow to go back home and ride for a ProTour team and the director who guided him to his biggest successes? The real question lies in what such a move would solve for Unzué.

Unzué’s current leader, Valverde, is already barred from racing in Italy due to his own connections to Operacion Puerto and is now facing the very real prospect of that ban being made international. So Unzué could try to hedge his bets by bringing in an experienced and familiar GC rider. However, should he return to European racing and regain some prominence, Mancebo’s alleged involvement in Operacion Puerto could land him in much the same boat as Valverde, though most non-Italians have seen fit to move on from Puerto at this point. Additionally, if Valverde is benched, Unzué already has some other viable options for getting big results in Joachim Rodriguez and Luis Leon Sanchez, both of whom are younger than Mancebo and haven’t been several years removed from top-flight racing. So as a Valverde-substitute, Mancebo doesn’t make the most sense at this point.

The other reason for bringing back Mancebo could relate to this week’s biggest rumor mill, namely the question over where Alberto Contador (Astana) may ride next year. Should Contador jump ship, he’ll want assurances of a team that can back him up, and Mancebo could add some value to Caisse as a potential support rider in the grand tours.

Taking all that into account, it looks as if, in the event that Mancebo does land back under Unzué’s wing, the reason is likely to be more personal than sporting. Regardless of the reasoning though, Mancebo still seems to have what it takes to hold his own in Europe, and could produce a few more profitable seasons under proven leadership.

[Note: If you've read this far, please do read the followup here.]