Much time is spent analyzing the teams from the "new world" but just like in the world of fine wine the french are making a comeback, making themselves ever more relevant . Europcar went into this season with two legitimate TdF general classification contenders and there are now more french riders competitive in the big races than we have seen in a long time. The funding is quite clearly a limiting factor still, with the biggest anglo teams having way more resources at their disposal while France hasn't lucked out in finding a really solid big backer since Tapie basically. Most apparent is this trend in the FDJ team who has it all in terms of talent, but where will it lead them? Can we see them being the team that manages to move up the team-hierarchy without the big-spender strategy of a BMC, Orica or Sky?
What We Thought Coming In
Well, we didn't do a capsule last year but let's just say we expected lots of spirited and mostly futile attacking, lots of TV time in July. Some quality stagehunting on tricky stages by Sandy Casar and some medium-quality sprint victories by Hutarovich. Also we probably expected to see some talented youngsters show their stuff here and there in the smaller races. The major bummer going into 2012 was the sidelining of classics-star in the making Yoann Offredo . An affair of seemingly sloppy whereabouts -reporting saw the French federation handing him a one-year ban. That stopped him from potentially following up on a stellar 2011 where he was an animator in some major races and looked on the verge of a major breakthrough. All in all we probably expected a pretty unremarkable team except on days when the catastrophic combination of wet conditions and their customary white bibshorts would have us gasping in horror in front of the TV.
What We Got
2012 was a bit like watching an old and pretty vintage car suddenly splutter to life and start firing on all cylinders. The addition of newly crowned U23 World Champion Arnaud Démare into the FDJ sprint-team worked miracles from day one of the season. Starting to win races right out of the gate it was like a vitamin-injection and suddenly it seemed like there was a whole other level of confidence. Previously they had primarily counted on Hutarovich to finish the job but although he shows signs of brilliance at times he has never been a consistent performer. Now suddenly there was a Démare and Nacer Bouhanni who also found his groove to make sure the hard work that goes into a sprint-setup paid off and the effects were clear to see. FDJ were taking control in the leadouts and showing early in races that they would commit riders to chase down breakaway, signalling they had faith in their finishers to be competitive even against the very biggest sprinter-names. And compete they did, racking up both quantity and quality wins.
While the early season was for the hotshot sprinters, the Tour de France was were Thibault Pinot made himself known to the world. The stagewin, accompanied by insane shouting from Madiot, in Porrentruy was one of the highlights of the Tour and following up with stable riding to clinch a final top 10 placing was impressive. Apart from the Tour his season was quite lackluster but when your main job is to perform in July and you do, much is forgiven.
But even as the youngsters put the wins on the table the older "dependable" veterans struggled a little. Pierrick Fedrigo who has been having a couple of odd-ish seasons with injuries and elusive form had some high profile wins, a TdF stagewin which is always money and a win on the climbing stage in the Critérium International just gets a passing grade. You can't help but feel that there is un-tapped potential there. With his engine, and above all his race-smarts, you wonder why he isn't winning more or at least featuring in the finales of the bigger races more often? Sandy Casar was completely anonymous by his standards and guys like Jeannesson, Bonnet, Vaugrenard and Geslin more or less went AWOL, results-wise at least. Hutarovich did what he's done before, won the odd sprint, but not really living up to the promise of a few years ago. The end result was that despite the spirited performances of the youngsters the team as a whole still struggled to put points enough on the board (World Tour points most importantly) to really put the team on solid ground at the top level.
Top Three Highlights
1. Tour de France, Stage 8. Pinot wins, Madiot goes nuts
2. Vattenfall Cyclassics. Démare had a spectacular neo-season but winning the World Tour sprinter's classic in Hamburg against some of the best in the world was the highlight.
3. GP Le Samyn. The newfound confidence of the FDJ sprint unit on full display as Démare grabbed his first really big win as a pro.
Bottom Three Lowlights
1. Despite a high profile season the team still ends up on the anxiety-inducing lower end of the WT sporting-criteria list.
2. Arnold Jeannesson "disappearing" after a 2011 season that saw him finish 14th in the TdF.
3. White shorts again? When will they ever learn?
Where Do They Go From Here?
Marc Madiot is one of the most enviable managers in the World Tour. And also the one you have to feel most sorry for. He has assembled some of the most exciting prospects in todays peloton on his team. He has super-sprinters, a potential Tour-winner and a potential classics dominant and all of them French to boot. He could be looking at a dream season in 2013 but at the same time that is his biggest fear. Because of the limited financial means at his disposal, any monumental success is almost certain to mean that his gold nuggets will get poached off to bigger-budget teams. The BigMat co-sponsor who joined in 2012 (leaving Garmin in the lurch) is already gone and FDJ will always struggle to compete with the big-money teams despite having a stable, long-term backer in the French national lottery.
That said, 2013 could be a stellar year. Offredo has shown in Qatar that he hasn't been on the couch in his year off and it wil be interesting to see if he picks up where he left off in 2011. Will he develop into a winner and not merely an animator? If he does find the balance and patience he will be lethal. Hutarovich could see the writing on the wall with two younger prospects coming up behind so he left for Ag2r, leaving the hierarchy a bit more clear. Démare is presumably set to make his TdF debut then and the big question is if he can keep his focus and not let the build-up of expectations get to him in his second year. He will most likely go up against tougher competition on a daily basis this year too so replicating 2012 will not come easy.
Same really goes for Pinot. The title of "France's Next TdF Winner" has never done anyone any favors. Chavanel is probably the one who has recovered best from the moniker and even he is a million miles away from ever winning the Tour. So what are the odds Pinot survives? Well firstly he hasn't gone for the big money yet and if he decides to remain on FDJ odds are he stays grounded but then the question becomes whether he will be stuck in an overly conservative, old-school training environment? The feeling you get is that younger french riders are breaking out of that pattern but it remains a concern. If you look at the FDJ team there is some pretty good support for a GC rider today if they can get everyone to pull in the same direction. For example they've signed touted talent Alexandre Geniez but can they make a team player out of him? Then to really put together a solid season some of the veterans will have to contribute too. Casar is probably on his last laps but he could still be a major contributor. God only knows the potential in Fedrigo if he finally puts together a solid season.
Also, will the split focus of FDJ hurt Pinot's chances? It's feels likely that they will go to the Tour hoping for GC, sprint success and probably their patented old stagehunting as well. Odds are that reaching for everything might make them fall short against more focused teams. If Madiot uses his assets wisely over the season there is no reason 2013 shouldn't be FDJ's best year to date. Will it be enough to make them into a top team, or even put them on solid ground in the World Tour remains to be seen.