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Offseason Capsule: AG2R

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What next for the over-achieving brown shorts?

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After taking big steps forward over the last few years, 2018 was a season of consolidation, marked by regular prominence but few major wins

What we said last year

I was in optimistic mood. On reflection, perhaps too optimistic. I’m pleased I put Bardet up as a contender for the World Champs and pumped the brakes on his Tour chances, but I may have oversold his chances of repeating a productive couple of years in ’16 and ’17. Olivier Naesen didn’t quite get the results I hoped for though at least I threw in a positive note for Dillier. As for the climbers not named after lettuce (thanks, Brad’s son!) there was a big gap between my hopes and reality.

What we got in 2018

Romain Bardet turned in a strong spring, with second in a tough Strade Bianche and third in Liege and the Dauphine. For the first time in a few years, he missed a podium in the Tour, finishing sixth. Although he looked reasonable throughout and didn’t have an awful day, he never looked like grabbing a mountain stage by the throat and once again suffered on the chrono bike, though finishing within two minutes of Dumoulin on the bumpy 31km course was better than it might have been. As the season rolled to a close, he went to the Italian classics and performed well, and then climbed with Valverde and Woods to finish second in the Worlds.

The team’s other superstar, Olivier Naesen, had the sort of season that happens in the classics, especially when Quick Step are dominant. He was in the right places but never managed to get into the leading group. Fourth at E3 was perhaps his best spring result, but he added top 15s in both mouments. Come autumn, he was still riding well and picked up a hatful of VDS points in races like the Canadian GPs and Paris-Tours, as well as his sole seasonal win in the Bretagne Classic.

The team’s best result of the spring, though, was not Naesen’s, but the brave ride with Sagan for second in Paris-Roubaix that led to Sylvain Dillier finishing second, the strongest result of a solid season. We also saw Pierre Latour grab the white jersey in the Tour, finishing 13th. He wore the youth jersey in Catalonia and the Dauphine too, and retained his French TT championships. It was a very solid season of progression for a talented climber who can time trial.

New acquisition Tony Gallopin had himself a quiet year until he grabbed a stage of the Vuelta. As to the rest, it was pretty well business as usual, though the Alexises (Vuillermoz and Gougeard would have hoped for more).

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

7th – Nicely in the top half of the WT, and paced by Bardet, Naesen and Latour. Greater breadth of scoring would have pushed them up the list.

Top Highlights

1. Sylvain Dillier won hearts and minds with a tough ride in perhaps the toughest race of all. When he couldn’t sprint against Sagan we felt sorrow, not frustration. A great ride.

2. Likewise, Romain Bardet gave everything he had in the World Championships but was up against a tough old competitor and superior sprinter in Alejandro Valverde. After the disappointment in Siena it was another occasion when he got in the right places but just couldn’t get it done. As I suggested in last year’s “most intriguing”, I think the book on Bardet is now definitely out – superb climber, one trick pony. That will get you close in big races, but won’t see you win all that much.

He’s still there? Arse. I have no plan B.
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3. We need to put a win here, and the team’s most prestigious was Tony Gallopin’s in a tough stage of the Vuelta. Alexandre Geniez would add a second from the break a few stages later. Those wins just edge out Latour’s white jersey for third spot.

Bottom Lowlights

1. There were a big group of teams at the very top of the classification in the stage 4 time trial in the Tour. AG2R were a minute and fifteen seconds back. From then on, Bardet was on the back foot, and he could never get into serious contention in the team’s biggest target.

2. Add Olivier Naesen to the long list of riders who must have hated the sight of a Quick Step rider disappearing up the road. He saw a lot of it, and, coupled with a few moments of bad luck, it led to a frustrating cobbled classics run.

Note the knee. Bad luck on cobbles normally hurts.
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3. This is one of these tricky capsules to write simply because the lowlight isn’t a thing. It is the absence of a thing. When the top highlights are two second places (and the mention of a third), you have a team that simply didn’t win enough.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Geoffrey Bouchard, Darian Godon (Cofidis), Larry Warbasse (Aqua Blue Sport)

Outs: Cyril Gautier (Vital Concept), Rudy Barbier (ICA), Jan Bakelants (Sunweb), Matteo Montaguti (Androni)

Renewals: Mathias Frank, Nans Peters, Quentin Jauregui, Benoit Cosnefroy, Clement Chevrier, Alexandre Geniez, Gediminas Bagdonas, Stijn Vandenbergh, Hubert Dupont, Samuel Dumoulin, Alexis Gougeard

Ther’s not a lot changing here, which I think makes sense. No, the results weren’t spectacular in 2018 but the squad looks well-made and to provide value for money. The focus on retention makes sense. Bouchard (winner of Alsace and a stagiare in ‘18) and Godon bring potential and Warbasse experience, but none will fundamentally change the team. You could say the same about the names leaving. In particular, happy trails to Barbier, who didn’t live up to my expectations and joins Enger in fleeing the 2017 sprinter experiment for ICA.

In short, they’re bringing the band back together, but with another year’s seasoning. Makes sense.

Most intriguing rider

Was anyone still watching this season when the riders left Paris (okay, Dreux) for Tours? No reason at all why you would have been, but I know we’ve got impressive cycling fans here. Actually a fun day’s cycling if you were watching, bloody dreadful for the riders. Awful weather, odd roads with lots of dirt, and some very tired riders strung all over France at the end of a long season. This was not your father’s Paris-Tours.

If you were watching, you’ll know where I’m going with this. Benoit Cosnefroy. He stuck around at the front of that tough race all day. In the last few kilometres, Soren Kragh Anderson (another great year, but that’s for a different week) got away from Niki Terpstra (ditto, obviously) and Benoit Cosnefroy. Yeah, him. The 23 year old in his first full season with AG2R. The former U-23 world champ. It was his most eye-catching result but by no means an isolated event. He’s had a very nice season and looks set to improve.

On the Montreal circuit. His sort of race?
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So, what’s the intrigue? Two things, really. First, his ceiling is clearly high, but how high? If he’s as good as I think he is, there’ll be a step forward this year. It might be a year too soon for his VDS point explosion (and he won’t be on any of my breakthrough candidate lists) but I’d expect to see him getting more prominent in bigger races. He’s on a trajectory that points pertty high.

Second, what kind of racer is he? Hardman-sprinter or climby-classics rider? I don’t really feel like I have a handle on him yet. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to pick a rider to compare him to, I’d cry and ask you to put the gun down. If you just asked me politely, I might suggest Michael Matthews. The Amstel/San-Remo type guy who can climb and can sprint but is best when he has to do both. That kind of rider does well. Keep an eye on Benoit.

So, what happens next?

In these pieces I try to talk about as broad a rage of riders as I can manage, without being needlessly obtuse. For this squad, it is hard to move away from the big two. Their plans won’t change dramatically, either. We’ll see something of Naesen later in the season but he will be focused on the spring, and again has an unflashy but solid supporting team. With a less dominant Wolfpack and a little more luck, he has the talent to win a big classic. Let’s see if 2019 will be the year.

Romain Bardet, meanwhile, will be focused on the Tour. He’s got the course he’d want. The thing is, though, there’s still the 54km of time trial (50:50 split team:individual) and that’s 53.5km too much, at least. He’s also not currently able to drop the better all-rounders on the mountain passes. Top ten, sure. Top three? In a year with under performing competition, maybe. Winning? Nah.

What about the rest of the team? Well, we know what to expect from the majority, and there’s no reason to think Gallopin won’t be back to his 2017 form in the second year at AG2R. That makes him a valuable weapon. Alexis Villermoz will also hope for better results, whilst Sylvain Dillier needs to prove that 2018 wasn’t a fluke. I don’t think it was, but consecutive years at that level is a big ask. A few others (Peters, Frank, Bagdonas, a still-improving Latour, etc) might pop up here or there with an eye-catching result. I’ve talked about Cosnefroy, and he’s a wildcard. Sprints will be a bit of a work in progress for this outfit.

You can actually boil this down even further. If you don’t think Bardet can win this year’s Tour, and I don’t, it is a question of the legs, the luck, and the roads in March. One good day for Naesen could elevate this team. If it doesn’t happen, we’re looking at something similar to last year. Until Latour and Cosnefroy make the leap.