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Offseason Capsule: AG2R

Every year, these boys get more interesting to watch

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2017 was a good year for Bardet, and a good year for Naesen. In fact, it was a good year all around for a team who have very definitely emerged from anonymity and are quietly (and cheaply) taking their place among the big teams.

What we said last year

Chris took a look at the brown-shorts for us last year. He foresaw a big year for Bardet, a year of greater success for Naesen and a year of increased prominence for Latour, Enger and Gougeard. It was a pretty good prediction of what came to be, although Enger was a sore disappointment and Bardet’s TT failed to live up to the lukewarm assessment it picked up here.

Also, some joker with his own blog (ahem) was outed as a big Barbier supporter. So you know you’re in safe hands this year.

What we got in 2017

We got 16 wins, double the number in 2016. Great news for AG2R, less good for those of us hoping that Chris would eat Drew’s hat (guys, if you don’t read all the links, you won’t get all the jokes). They weren’t all very prominent – in fact, apart from a tour stage and a Belgian Nat, none of them were, but the team were around and about in some big races.

Olivier Naesen put his hand up as the newest member of the cobbled classics elite in 2017, riding to top tens in Omloop, KBK, Dwars and E3, before being caught up in the tumble when Sagan went down in Flanders. He consistently rode alongside the best and looked incredibly strong, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t repeat it. For good measure, he was shockingly good in Amstel (12th) and as a domestique in the Tour, and managed to pick up the Belgian Championship. He did nicely in the autumn northern classics, too.

Despite Naesen’s emergence, this is Bardet’s squad, and he was impressive in 2017. It started with a blip when he was disqualified in Paris-Nice but he put that behind him and rode nicely in the Ardennes, with 6th in Liege and 13th in Fleche, reminding us all that he is a decent one-day rider when he needs to be. That succeeded 10th in Catalunya and 15th in the Basque Country, and preceded 6th in the Dauphine, all of which was building up to his key objective for the year, the Tour. He did exactly what was expected of him, riding with the bigs in the mountains, picking up a stage (winning into Peyragudes in the high mountains) and finishing third overall. He also appeared to regress in the time trial, dropping two minutes over 22km in Marseille and looking visibly nervous before and during his ride. Despite the chatter about him working on his position over the offseason, he was consistently poor against the watch in 2017. He went to Spain but the Vuelta was a race too far for a tired Frenchman.

Not his best kind of bike
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The rest of the squad rode well enough, for the most part. The departing Dominico Pozzovivo won a stage of the Swiss Tour, which doesn’t mean a great deal. He did other things that do matter, though – leading the team in the Giro and finishing 6th overall, repeating that trick in Lombardy, hitting the podium in the Alps and picking up top tens in the weeklong races in Poland, Tirreno-Adriatico and Swiss. It all added up to lots of points which will be helpful to his next squad, without really setting the heart racing.

From an established career to one emerging, it was a quiet but impressive year for Pierre Latour. He rode his first Tour in support of Bardet and looked like he belonged. Elsewhere, he picked up promising results such as Fleche (14th) and Milan-Torino (9th) and he won the national TT champs. Lots of promise.

I saw AG2R emerging as an under-the-radar sprint team in 2017. Not so much. I assume there is a story for Sondre Holst Enger (the most I’ve read is “sickness and difficulties”) and I have no desire to pile on. It was a lost season for the young Norwegian after his move from IAM and he’ll be heading to the new Isreali team for 2018, where we hope he can rekindle his talent. The other recruit for whom I had hopes was Rudy Barbier, who didn’t live up to my expectations but rode well enough, with a 6th in Scheldeprijs an unusual early highlight, but his late-season peppered with top tens and even including a win (okay, it was Paris-Bourges, but whatever).

Plenty of others had good seasons. At the risk of running even longer than usual, Villermoz deserves a mention for a stunningly good season (I think I was slower to see this coming than most) that included 13th in the Tour and top-10 finishes in Quebec, Emilia, and Lombardia among a very solid late-season run in which he also won at Limousin. Alexandre Geniez (won Tre Valle Varisine, third in l’Ain) also warrants a mention in dispatches.

Put it all together and you have a team who picked up a fair smattering of wins but more importantly were prominent in almost all of the big races, which is something we haven’t been able to say very often.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

9th – Middle of the pack. Interestingly, the top scorer was Pozzovivo, which just goes to show that whilst we have the best scoring system around, it ain’t perfect, and nothing exposes that like a depth of solid results beating a few great ones.

Top Highlights

1. A podium finish in the Tour will always crown a list like this for a French squad. Bardet added a stage win and gave his sponsors exactly what they paid for in France back in July.

2. Naesen’s spring was excellent and must have surpassed expectations. If you’re looking for a single moment, I’ll put forward his third in E3. He went clear with Greg van Avermaet and Phillipe Gilbert and stayed with them. For a young Belgian in the main tune-up for Flanders, that’s heady stuff.

A welcome victory and a storied jersey
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3. Alexis Gougeard won Poly Normande, a race with a much better list of previous winners that you might expect. It is a tough course and often a predictor of future success, and it was a good win for a promising young classics rider coming off a slightly disappointing spring.

Bottom Lowlights

1. The moment Romain Bardet crossed the line in Marseille. His time trial was simply not good enough and it was apparent on his face that he knew that. For all the (justified) celebration in Paris the next day, that moment is going to worry everyone concerned with this team coming into 2018.

2. The year endured by Sondre Holst Enger was a blow to a team with ambitions of adding sprinting to their list of races in which they can compete.

3. Very tempting to stop at two. This really was a solid season. Just for consistency, let’s pop in the failure to pick up a really big win – a monument or major classic, a grand tour or weeklong race. They didn’t actually close out any of them.

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Silvan Dillier (BMC Racing), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), Clement Venturini (Cofidis), Benoit Cosnefroy.

Outs: Sondre Holst Enger (Israel Cycling Academy), Hugo Houle (Astana), Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida)

Renewals: Gediminas Bagdonas, Romain Bardet, François Bidard, Axel Domont, Ben Gastauer, Pierre Latour, Oliver Naesen

We’ve seen lists with more names on previously, but there are some good names on this list and for the most part they’re in the right columns. Renewing Bardet, Naesen and Latour is a huge win. For a relatively small team it must have felt unlikely at various points. Houle and Enger will be missed but the losses aren’t insurmountable, and it is understandable that they didn’t feel able to pay a 35-year-old Pozzovivo. One imagines that Bahrain value his WT points as much as well as his chances of another top-10 GT finish.

Of the riders coming in, Cosnefroy impressed as a stagiare and this will have been an easy decision, and Venturini moves over from Cofidis and will be developed into a cobbles helper and all-round engine. Of more immediate significance, both Gallopin and Diller add considerable strength and versatility across the season and make this a successful offseason.

A welcome addition
AFP/Getty Images

Most intriguing rider

Any time the same man tops the list of highlights and lowlights for the same race, you have yourself an intriguing rider. I try to avoid hyperbole in these pieces, but 2018 will be the year in which we figure out who Romain Bardet is. He’s 27 and this will be his 6th Tour. His results so far have been 15th, 6th, 9th, 2nd, 3rd. So we know he can ride for three weeks, climb with the best, recover well and time his efforts. Given that Dumoulin (we think) will go back to Italy and there is a circus where Chris Froome used to be, he is even more of a favourite for 2018 than he was before.

Which is fine, except for the bit with the time trial. It would be very easy to underplay how bad he was in Marseille, given he kept his podium, but it bears repeating. Over 22km, he lost 1m57 to Froome. He lost 1m30 to Uran. He lost time to everyone who mattered and plenty of people who didn’t, and in doing so, he looked like a broken man. Come the Vuelta, he was tired and he wasn’t putting in the effort, which is understandable, but he crashed and finished 159th, losing over 8 minutes. This was a chance to prove he’d had an aberration, and it was a chance he missed.

There is only one individual time trial in the 2018 Tour, and it is a bumpy one. That plays to his chances. The AG2R team time trial won’t be winning the race, but won’t disgrace themselves. Still, for him to win the tour he has to either get a big lead in the mountains or improve his TT so that he can defend a small lead. I’ll be watching his early-season TTs with considerable interest, but I think there’ll be someone who can TT better than him and climb nearly as well as him come July, and I think he’ll fall short again. 2018 is when we’ll know for sure - is he the next J-Rod or a slowly emerging Tour winner?

So, what happens next?

In our latest podcafst (listen now!) I said that Bora had won the offseason, based on a review of all the squads that I’d been through to that point. Well, having got to AG2R, I take it back. This was an even more successful offseason and it set them up beautifully for 2018 and beyond.

We’ve talked about Bardet and what he needs to do. Ultimately, if he can win the Tour everything else is just noise. I don’t think he can, though a third consecutive podium seems reasonable. A different challenge, should he choose to accept it, will be adjusting his season to allow him to head for the worlds in good condition. Given the specific course, I would have him among the favourites if he sets his mind to it.

The cobbled squad should be stronger in 2018, with Dillier all but certain to take part and Gallopin a possibility. Gougeard and Barbier, as well as young Nans Peters and the imported Venturini are all likely to be pushed to develop as helpers and Stijn Vandenburgh is as handy a road captain as you could hope for. Still, this will be Naesen’s team and it is clear what he needs to do – win something in the spring. There is some irony that he beat Sep in his only victory of 2017, because the “strong rider who can’t quite win the race” tag is one that he hasn’t picked up yet and needs to avoid next year. Expectations have risen and he needs to rise with them and get on the top step.

Gallopin will combine with Vuillermoz and Bardet to give the squad a useful three-man threat in the Ardennes, whilst this could be the year that Latour (who can time trial, to everyone’s relief) is given a chance to lead a GT team, perhaps in Spain when the pressure is reduced. The pieces are in place, and the talent is certainly there. Another year of 16 wins, a Tour podium and 9th in overall ranking would be just fine, but they just might do better still.

Latour at the front. More of this in 2018, please.
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EDIT: Here is Romain Bardet Skate Skiing: (love Will)