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Offseason Capsule: Hey, It’s an AG2R Post!

We’ve overlooked the steady French squad long enough

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Nineteen Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

With tight time resources and the usual distractions (I’m looking at you, 2017 FSA DS price list), we never really get around to doing offseason capsules for everyone who deserves one. But it’s a little remarkable that I have maybe never done one for AG2R. It’s to be expected that we have regularly covered the US-based teams, the biggest teams and the cobbles teams, but we’ve tried to change things up and catch some others as well. We did them for Argos-Shimano, Rabobank and FDJ. We did them for Vacansoleil, for god’s sake.

Never for AG2R. Why? How uninteresting does a team have to be for us to ignore it for that long? Let’s see... Nic Roche... John Gadret... Rinaldo Nocentini... I’m thinking, pretty uninteresting. They seem to average about a dozen wins a year, which doesn’t help. That they are French is another factor. Not because I (or you) are unable to appreciate French teams or riders, but that there haven’t been many great ones of late, and they’ve been pretty spread around rather than concentrated on a single team. And then they go all-in for the Tour, where they don’t have a chance to do much, and presto! Nothing to write about.

But of course that’s not fair, and in AG2R’s case it’s becoming increasingly untrue. Yes, the last two decades haven’t been kind even to established French teams like this project, which has been around since 1992. Vincent Lavenu has been running the team for 20 years, during which the team has been dinged on very few occasions for doping infractions, and their budget allegedly lingers just below the sport’s middle class. Those twin factors don’t add up to tons of success, but they do give the team a foundation of self-respect for when they are able to finally reel in some talent they can nurture to greater heights. Or so it appears from a distance anyway.

bardet tdf

That day might have arrived. Romain Bardet is just about everything a French team could hope for, as someone who they can sell to fans at home, because he’s really really good at cycling. Bardet’s 2016 season -- 1777 points by our ranking — is the highest point total for a Frenchman since records have been kept (a/k/a 2010), surpassing Thomas Voeckler’s annoyingly effective 2011 season. It’s basically on par with Thibaut Pinot’s 2015 season (1773 points), or an amalgam of Pinot’s previous two years, minus the drama around descents. Bardet’s second place overall in the Tour de France bested Pinot’s third from 2014, when France returned to the podium in force, including the recently retired Jicé Peraud in second. We will unpack the details in a moment, but suffice to say, the squad have entered the discussion for excellence in 2017, on the back of the still-young Auvergnat.

What We Said Previously

Moving right along... Had we said anything, I’m sure it would have been about some sort of Tour focus, with Bardet hoping to move up after a couple top ten finishes. We would have mumbled about some of the one-day point scorers like Samuel Dumoulin and Jan Bakelants. We would have called Peraud too old, and made Cadrius jokes, an inside reference to a top-five all-time Cafe live thread. And maybe, in the right lighting, we would have noticed that this Latour kid might be OK. But then we’d have talked up how great Pinot is and moved on.

LaTour wins Vuelta Stage Jose Jordan AFP

What We Got Instead

The big breakthrough. Bardet taking second in Paris was the headliner, coming as it did with a heaping helping of stage victory awesomeness as well. Latour, in just his second full season, made a massive impression on the elite ranks all season long, from his second at Critérium International to third in the Tour de l’Ain, to a stage victory in the Vuelta a España, to tenth in Lombardia. Dumoulin and Bakelants were about what you’d have expected, though the team’s eight victories were the lowest total for a World Tour entrant. Domenico Pozzovivo was of little help, and might be sliding toward retirement, after an uninspiring age-34 season. And the cobbled classics, once thought of as a possible area of intrigue, became a disaster when illness scuttled Alexis Gougeard’s budding hopes and a heart issue forced the retirement of former Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Van Summeren.

Summie with the rock

Let’s look a bit more closely at the headliners, in reverse order of importance. Bakelants was roughly the same person he’s been except for the strange decision to send him to the Vuelta, where he finished a forgettable 17th, and then embarked on a pretty forgettable fall classics campaign, which would be forgivable if he hadn’t worn himself out for the classics at the 2012 Vuelta. But who among us has discovered some cause-and-effect scenario, felt unsure about it, and tried it once more to make sure? Now AG2R know. While he’s getting older, Dumoulin is another rider who makes his money after the Tour, and unlike Bakelants he had a bang-up 2016 campaign, including a win in the Tour du Doubs, second in the Tour Vendee, and generally hoovered up points all September. At 36, he may or may not have another such campaign in him, but he’s been valuable to the team thus far.

Pierre “don’t call me Roger” Latour did enough to set the team’s dreams aflutter for 2017, with a stage win at the Vuelta capping off a season of rapid development. Apart from second in Criterium Int’l and third in the Tour de l’Ain, the results weren’t the entire story, and even a breakaway stage win in the Vuelta sometimes says more about the peloton’s lack of interest than it does about the winner’s abilities. But there is no doubt that the 23-year-old showed improving strength in places like Il Lombardia (10th) and in that stage win in his first grand tour, after nearly three weeks of racing.

Finally, there’s Bardet. Having just rolled past his 26th birthday, we can safely say this is a guy on the early side of his prime, and finishing second in the Tour is maybe not a miracle or a sign of imminent victory, but it did elevate him to the top of the Not-Froome conversation. Better still, it was achieved with a very mature, all-round focus, with a strong third-week ITT result as well as the coup de grace, the stage win that put him on the podium once and for all. And if we were surprised, well, it’s our own damn fault, because Bardet was just as consistent in taking second to Froome in the Dauphine. Still surprised? Well he was sixth in Trentino (the Giro’s version of the Dauphine), when he wasn’t even riding the Giro. He was eighth in Paris-Nice. Fourth in Lombardia. Second in the Giro dell’Emilia. He kicked it all season long.

Top Three Highlights

  1. Bardet wins at Mont Blanc. Aided by some crashes behind him as well as his own tactical aggression and Mikel Cherel’s assistance, Bardet bridged up to Rui Costa and left him for dead well before the line, to claim a solo victory. The heads of state weren’t too far off (20-plus seconds), so this win certainly can’t be seen as any sort of gift. Bardet wrested the second podium step from Nairo Quintana’s grasp, and held it to Paris. Doesn’t get too much better than that.
  2. Latour’s Vuelta stage. Too easy? OK, but Ag2R start running out of high-profile successes pretty quickly, and anyway it was remarkable for a guy so young and green to be OK at anything involving a bicycle after 18 stages of heat, dust, and climbs. This wasn’t “Joe Blow survives from an early break,” this was the future taking shape.
  3. Peraud 13th at the Vuelta. Now you really think I’m crazy, but hey, it was his last race as a pro, and he went out in some decent style.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. Everything about the cobbled classics. But nothing more than Van Summeren being forced to retire. I’m not sure he had another Roubaix ‘11 in his legs, and certainly the heart condition ends the conversation rather definitively. Live long and prosper Summie. But that was a harsh way for things to go, and Gougeard’s lack of form was a bit more salt in the wound.
  2. Latour falls ill in Suisse leader’s jersey. What might have been...
  3. I’ll go with the end of Lombardia. Bardet came unstuck from the lead group on the last climb with 1.6km to go, nearly clawed back in time for the final sprint, and watched as a trio of non-sprinters dueled for Monumental glory.
Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Four Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Comings and Goings

All good news here, except of course Summie’s retirement, already discussed. The other nine departures are of little consequence competitively. Even Peraud wasn’t going to score much more. None of them is headed to a World Tour team.

And coming in is some serious quality. The headliner is the Belgian sprinter/classics rider Oliver Naesen, who fell into the team’s lap when IAM Cycling disintegrated. Naesen fancies himself a finalist in any of the cobbled classics, and what he lacks in statistical evidence of that, he makes up for with the kind of confidence you can’t help but like. He’ll gain an important ally in Stijn Vandenbergh, who departs Quick Step in search of his own shot at winning, and stagiaire Rudy Barbier from Lille-Metropole.

On the uphill side of things, the news is even better. Mathias Frank is IAM’s other big gift to Lavenu, a rider who was previously eighth in the Tour de France, and can do a lot to help Bardet in place of Peraud, either as co-leaders or in support. Alexandre Geniez is maybe a bit less exciting but certainly a useful point-scorer in stage races and classics, and Nans Peters is an up-and-coming climber for the team to develop. Finally, when Naesen isn’t up for a sprint, Sondre Holst Enger — another IAM refugee — will likely be.

What’s Around the Corner

If this team isn’t ranked higher with a more respectable win total in its column in 2017, I’ll eat Drew’s hat. If only because Enger and Naesen can pick off some smaller races, the wins should come. For bigger goals, I guess we shall see, and I’m not ready to anoint Naesen a favorite for anything more than maybe K-B-K or Dwars, but his victory in Plouay was pretty convincing evidence that the kid has the talent to at least jump into the ultra-competitive Cobbles pool. Given that he’ll have the experienced Vandenbergh alongside, plus a hopefully fit Gougeard, AG2R can expect to be players in March and April.

Latour is a bit harder to predict. He calls himself a strong all-rounder with good ITT skills, but needs to work on his descending. We’ve seen guys of that caliber struggle to get results, so something good needs to happen with respect to his technical deficiencies before I get too bullish on him.

The good news is that there shouldn’t be more than a whiff of pressure on him. It’d be a challenge to send him to the Giro, where bad bike handling is so catastrophic, but on the other hand if he can manage, teaming up with Professor Pozzovivo would be a good experience otherwise. And Pozzovivo can use a new purpose as he hopes to discover the post-major-injury form that he couldn’t quite harness in 2016.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Nineteen Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

On the other hand, I am pretty bullish on AG2R at the 2017 Tour. The time trials are manageable -- not that Bardet is a slouch in them to begin with. And the race itself isn’t so punishing that it might break smaller teams... though I guess that cuts both ways too. Anyway, Bardet seems like a very serious, focused guy, dedicated to the details the way a champion has to be, and with the confidence he surely accrued this season it’s hard to see him too far from Froome as the Tour progresses. Maybe Quintana bounces back and reclaims that best-of-the-rest spot, but whatever, the Tour is full of talented dreamers. Bardet has muscled his way into prime position, and with a strong team at his disposal — including a veteran like Frank — the fans of France should be out in vocal support.

Bardet taking second doesn’t mean he’s the #2 guy. It’s more reasonable to see him as part of the next wave of Tour contenders, three of whom finished within 37 seconds of each other. Quintana is the elder statesman, a few months older than Bardet and with a much longer resume, so rating them equally based on one general classification is risky, but they’re not far apart. Adam Yates was a couple dozen seconds further back, but he and Louis Meintjes — eighth at just under three minutes later than Bardet — are two years younger than Quintana and the Frenchman. Anyway, Bardet is firmly entrenched in the group of riders who stand to inherit the title from Froome when he missteps or eventually gets old. In 2017, a breakthrough grand tour or monument victory might still come as a surprise, given the nature of such things, but for once it’s fair to say that nothing is off the table for Bardet, and for AG2R. And going unnoticed by any serious fans will cease to be a problem for the team, if it hasn’t already.