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2007 Reviews: French Squads, En Breve

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Ah, French Cycling. Like fine wine, it ages beautifully, unless you remove the cork, whereupon it turns to vinegar in a matter of days. Can someone put the cork back in please?

Cheesy metaphor aside, I don't actually want to get into any more redundant, 35,000-foot discussions of what's going on with French Cycling (too much mineral water? not enough miles? etc.). Still, the teams were still worthy of a little review, and I hold out hope that Cycling Quotient can help us Yanks -- who receive almost no information about French riders and teams -- better familiarize ourselves with some of the ground-level details.

Credit Agricole

Fortunes: Down. After two years of rising from 3900 to 6700 CQ points and a high of 10th place, Credit Ag slumped (5407 pts, rank: 14th) in 2007, despite almost no turnover from the previous year. Fully three-fifths of the roster saw their individual ranking drop, including their only three riders to crack the top 100 in 2006: Hushovd, Caucchioli and Botcharov. And of the riders who improved, only Laszlo Bodrogi and Anthony Charteau threatened (but failed) to join Hushovd in the top-century. Charteau scooped up the Langkawi title and some points on the domestic scene... and absconded to Caisse d'Epargne. Bodrogi stepped up his signature time trialing and picked up added points for minor placings on the cobbles as well, but at 31 he's probably what he is.

Caucchioli is the team's grand tour specialist, though his window is closing. After a nice 16th in the 2006 Tour and second in the Vuelta KOM comp, he opted to ride the Giro and Vuelta this year, with mediocre (37th, DNF) results. At best, he'll bag top-20 placings on mountain stages, so maybe this year's various climb-fests will be his final chance to shine. Botcharov, another vet, is more of an all-rounder who scored some nice placings in single-day events in '06 (4th in San Sebastian, 8th in the Worlds RR), but makes a more consistent living off minor stage race placings. Obviously the man can ride, but rarely into the spotlight.

That's reserved for Thor Hushovd, as usual... though even he saw 700 points lopped off his impressive 2006 totals, slipping from 9th overall to 29th. This, however, is completely misleading, since it has mostly to do with his decision to skip the Vuelta -- where he'd feasted on points last year -- in favor of the Giro and its slimmer pickings. Of course, on a French team Thor's year will be judged by the Tour, and his single-win, 4th-on-points placing was pale next to 2006 when he won the first and last stages, plus got hours of cumulative air time for bleeding on the yellow jersey.

What's it mean? In the world of stocks and bonds (of which I know nothing), they'd probably be considered an undervalued asset. Hushovd is the key, and he's thoroughly in his prime, a break or two away from another green jersey. Maybe age will finally catch up to Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel, while inexperience aces out some of the younger, faster sprint studs... and it'll be Hushovd versus Boonen for all the (green) marbles. I'm not the least concerned. As for the rest of the roster, they can't really do much worse. Incoming Simon Gerrans and Jeremy Hunt should more than cover Charteau's lost point haul.

What (else) to watch '08: Nicholas Roche remains the team's most celebrated youngster, but at 23 it's a bit early to bug him about his results. Seems to have a talent in time trials already, and they threw him into the Giro last year; we'll see if they introduce him to the Tour next. I don't know most of the other names, but William Bonnet seems to be establishing himself as a cobbles/sprinter/prologue power rider.

Française des Jeux

Fortunes: Down. Too bad, really: they'd fared decently in 2006, up to 15th at 5600 points, before falling off the cliff to the tune of -1400 points. Defections hurt them once again: Bernhard Eisel took his 700 points to the Mob, after Baden Cooke ditched them the previous winter. But returning big guns Casar, Guesdon and Gilbert all slipped significantly as well. Not all was lost: Sebastian Chavanel was a useful, low-budget pickup, and some of their numerous fresh young faces continued to show future promise, though where is another question.

Nobody could expect Frederic Guesdon, at 36, to repeat his remarkable 2006 campaign. Winner at Tours and seventh in Roubaix, Guesdon's prior year has to be regarded as a last hurrah... especially when his points sank by about 80% this year. Casar's decline can pretty much be summed up as the points he lost by skipping the Giro and focusing on the Tour. His 6th place on GC in Italy apparently gave him delusions of yellow, and, well, what the hey: a stage win at Angouleme was probably worth more to his sponsor than racking up CQ points in Italy.

Gilbert, meanwhile, is the team's brightest star, even if his points dipped slightly as well. Gone was the winning form he showed in 2006 at Het Volk, the Dauphine, and the Eneco Tour, as the young Belgian scored a lone victory at the Tour du Limousin. But his real story emerges from a look at his calendar. In 2007 Gilbert swapped out the Giro for the Vuelta, presumably to save his form for the Tour. He rode strongly all over Belgium (11th at Het Volk, 7th at E3 Prijs, 25th at de Ronde, 19th at La Fleche, 17th at Liege), went stage-hunting at the Tour, then recovered for the Vuelta before taking 8th at the Worlds. I suppose you could criticize him for being unfocused -- very few top riders even attend Flanders, Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, Liege and the Tour -- but at 25 he's probably still deciding where to apply his immense talent. For now, he's on the old-school calendar, which is tres cool, and he'll linger around the CQ top 20 for years to come.

What's it mean? Er, let's see... what exactly is the plan? Youth, I suppose, and a tight budget. When I was as old as the average FdJ rider, I lived on nothing, so perhaps it works. Undoubtedly management finds it frustrating to lose guys to richer teams -- Thomas Lovkvist (High Road) is the latest example. But Gilbert is worth building around, and Casar still gets them some ink.

What (else) to watch '08: Magazines were drooling over Remy DiGregorio after he took the mountains prize in the Dauphine, but he crashed out of the Tour in the first week. At 22, it's probably not the last hard lesson he'll have to learn, and his attempt to soldier on with a broken elbow probably won't be the last time he makes French fans swoon. Just hope it's at the finish next time. Other notables: Matthieu Ladagnous outkicked Dominique Cornu to win 4 Jours de Dunquerque, a fine result for a 23-year-old. Benoit Vaugrenard, 25, is already the national time trial champ and had some nice prologues (10th at le Tour), before soloing away to win the Polynormande road race. He seems to have left it all in France; by late September he could only manage 31st in the Worlds ITT.

Update [2008-1-3 1:37:8 by chris]: OK, I'm splitting this into at least two posts. Who knew there were so many French teams in the Pro Tour?