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Offseason Capsule: Groupama-FDJ

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In which we talk about Thibault Pinot a lot

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There was obviously a prestigious win at 2018’s last chance saloon, but if you’d asked me to sum up their season from memory, I would have been a bit “meh” about it all. Once I sat down and looked at what Madiot’s boys have achieved, though, there’s a fair bit of good stuff. Let’s get into it.

What we said last year

This was my first capsule of the last offseason, and I spilled a lot of metaphorical ink talking up David Gaudu, whilst suggesting that, beyond Pinot and Demare, the team couldn’t expect a great deal of success in 2018. I wrapped it up with: “2018 should look a lot like 2017 [27 wins, 14th on VDS], but with a strong possibility of achieving a more prominent victory or two, whether in a monument or a Grand Tour.” By the admittedly low standards of my prognostication, that ain’t bad.

What we got in 2018

There might not have been any wins in the Southern Hemisphere summer, but once racing came back to France, this team came bursting out of the gates with Marc Sarreau winning two stages of Besseges and Arnaud Demare and Rudy Molard each grabbing a stage in Paris-Nice (on re-reading this I didn’t make enough of what was a career year for Molard, who deserves serious praise. He was consistently very good). The rest of the spring was a quieter affair, though the team kept picking up wins in lesser races. Arthur Vichot’s overall win in the Tour de l’Ain will have pleased Will and was a highlight. In the classics, it was a lot of near misses, with Demare second in Kuurne, 9th in Omloop, 3rd in Wevelgem and 15th in Flanders. He was also on the podium in a monument, finishing third in Milan-San Remo, unable to cope with Nibali’s attack or Ewan’s sprint.

Pinot’s first main target was the Giro, and he warmed up well with a win in an impressively competitive and entertaining Tour of the Alps, and rode well to be third after stage 19, without winning a stage – though his time trial would have disappointed him. Stage 20, however, was one of the toughest days I’ve ever watched a rider suffer in the saddle, and I am still astounded that he finished. Dry-heaving and at times almost stationary, he dropped to 16th and was out of the race before the Rome processional stage. The treatment for pneumonia cancelled plans for the Tour, but he bounched back to finish third in Poland, and sixth in the Vuelta, before grabbing a top ten in the World Championships and wrapping up his season with wins in Milan-Turin and, most gloriously of all, in Il Lombardia.

Whilst Pinot was absent from the Tour, Demare grabbed a stage and a few podium finishes, but the high summer was a quiet time for the squad. It was nice to see old stager Anthony Roux win the French National champs, and he was inspired by his new duds to go out and grab third in San Sebastian. There were national championships for Ludviggson, Preidler, Morabito and Duchesne, too, the latter pair on the road and the former against the clock.

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Put it all together and you have 33 wins (second only to Quick Step), including three grand tour stages and a monument. It wasn’t consistent through the year, but I count thirteen individual winners, which is more than I’d have guessed. Whilst plenty of those wins were in smaller French races or national champs, there was enough prestige sprinkled in to make for happy reading.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

13th – a spot higher than they achieved last year, and in points terms, closer to 9th (Movistar) than 14th (Lotto Soudal). In case you’re interested, and you may not be, there’s a “middle tier” of world tour teams scoring between 7,970 (AG2R) and 7,272 (Groupama-FDJ) that includes 7 teams.

Top Highlights

1. Thibault Pinot won a monument. After a brilliant autumn campaign, he richly deserved it. In fact, after a great career (so far) he richly deserved it. I guess his biggest achievement previously was 3rd in the ’14 tour, and his biggest moment winning on Alpe d’Huez a year leater. His sole monument is the first line in his palmares for now.

2. Arnaud Demare spent much of his year ruing his near misses, but he’s a sprinter on a French team and he won a stage of the Tour, so this wasn’t a lost year. Proved his toughness once again by winning on a hot day in Pau after three weeks of suffering and a day after a vicious mountain stage.

3. I’m going with Pinot again, and his trip up into the mountains at the end of the Vuelta. He danced away from the bigs to win by Lagos de Covadonga. He backed it up with another win in Andorra. I don’t want this whole capsule to be the Thibault show, but his season lends itself to this narrative pretty strongly.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Watching Pinot (yes, him again) coughing and retching on stage 20 was, as I’ve said, just horrible. Losing out on a second career grand tour podium just made an awful day even worse. So pleased he bounced back to his best.

2. I’m trying to preach patience this offseason, so I don’t want to overreact, but I was disappointed with Gaudu’s first grand tour, in which he finished over an hour behind the white jersey winner. He did that as a 21 year old and will have many more chances, and he looked great in Italy (slapstick with Lopez very much part of his appeal) but I’m hoping that we’ll see more effective recovery and higher levels of performance as he gets used to the demands of three weeks of tough racing. It can happen, but this was the first blemish on an impeccable record.

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3. Coming up with this was a struggle. If I look at the season overall, however, I think that the 33 wins, whilst excellent, masks a problem. Take Demare’s run in August, for instance. He came out of the Tour and was obviously in excellent form, finishing second in Hamburg and then winning all five stages of Poitou Charentes (including a time trial). He wasn’t using those races as a tune up; he was coming off his big targets. So, either rest him or aim him at bigger races. Even if you want to skip the Vuelta, he missed the European Champs, numerous races in Belgium and the Germany Tour, all of which were significantly more prestigious than Poitou. There’s a fine line between getting wins and pleasing French sponsors on the one hand, and getting a little parochial on the other. Nitpicking, but aiming higher in 2019 would be ideal.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Stefan Küng (BMC Racing), Kilian Frankiny (BMC Racing), Miles Scotson (BMC Racing)

Outs: Arthur Vichot (Vital Concept), Jeremy Roy (retired), Davide Cimolai (ICA)

Renewals: Oliver Le Gac, Marc Sarreau, Davide Gaudu, Arnaud Démare, Antoine Duschene, Thibaut Pinot, Sébastian Reichenbach

Welcome to FDJ, Killian
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What we have here, boys and girls, is a list of three riders coming in, all of whom I care more about than the average fan. I’ve written about Stefan Kung as a transfer I loved. I’m also a big believer in Kilian Frankiny’s talent, dating back to his great junior career. Despite being hurt in 2018, I imagine I’ll pick him up for a single point in VDS again if the opportunity arises. As to Scotson, I’ve been waiting nearly two years for him to show Aussie Nats form again, without much reward, though he does seem to thrive in the Hammer Series. In all, three riders I rate, three riders who I think are reflective of the broader “more talent than the results showed” critique that will, I think, be the heart of BMC’s cycling epitaph. It’ll be good to see what they can produce for a change of scene.

The departing riders will, of course, be missed, but there isn’t a lot of churn here. There’s a world tour team getting younger and taking a chance on some talent, which is what’s supposed to happen. Meanwhile, Pinot and Demare are back as leaders, with talented riders like Reichenbach, Ducschene and Gaudu back to provide support and take their own chances. Nothing flashy here, but they’ve got better. What’s that? Sarreau? Wait just a moment, gentle reader.

Most intriguing rider

One of the problems of writing a bunch of these things is that confirmation bias has lots of time to kick in. Look at every rider in the world tour and you’ll start spotting the patterns that you want to see, and finding examples of one’s current philosophies. Right now, I’m on a “late bloomers are more common and matter more than you think” jag. Not precisely Kant, but nobody has ever exactly called me a Kant.

Anyway. Marc Sarreau came into 2018 as a twenty-four year old… sprinter? Leadout man? General team helper? It wasn’t entirely clear, though I think he’d go for sprinter. He’d won a couple of times as a pro, two stages of Poitou Charentes, in 2015 and 2017. He’d finished 4th in a chaotic Scheldeprijs back in 2015, and he’d started, but not finished, the 2016 Giro. You can probably guess where this story’s going. In 2018, he stepped up. Won five races, albeit not at the highest level. Finished his first grand tour in Spain, with two top-fives thrown in for good measure. He also lead FDJ home in Paris-Roubaix, finishing 26th.

Not all of the guys I write about here are stars, and they’re not all going to be stars. I don’t know what Marc Sarreau will be. A year ago, I’d have said he was on his way to a pro-conti ride. Now, he’s got two more years at Groupama and the chance to establish himself as a sprinter and tough rider who can win his share of races. It wouldn’t be a shock anymore if he won the Coupe de France, or if he hit a GT podium. He’s a late bloomer but he’s been supported at FDJ and we saw it starting to pay off in 2018. This is the sort of under the radar success I enjoy watching. More in 2019, please, Marc.

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So, what happens next?

Time now for the annual “where will Pinot go” competition and the answer is… France, he says. It looks like a course that’ll suit him and he’ll line up among the favourites, which is where I think he belongs. Whilst another run at the worlds is unlikely (Harrogate is less mountainous than Innsbruck, fact fans) you’d expect him to target the autumn classics again too.

Reichenbach was Pinot’s key support rider in the Giro and is another who might go well if given his own chances. The cast of climbing support isn’t enormously deep but Pinot will get the assistance he needs, and if Frankiny can come in and ride well and Vincent and Gaudu can keep developing (both had their first exposure to GT riding in 2018) then the team will have more options. In the hills and mountains, though, this is Pinot’s squad.

On the cobbles, Kung and Demare make up an intriguing double act and I would not be quick to discount either of them. Help won’t rival Quick Step, but there are some nice pieces, with Sinkeldam and Konavolos likely to be very visible in support. Demare will also feature on the flatter stages (could he be France’s man for the World Champs, or will they favour Alaphilippe and earlier attacks?) and will seek to add to his MSR triumph. If Pinot does head for the Tour, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s re-routed to the Giro, which would be a change of programme but might put him in stages that suit him better.

In under-the-radar news, the team are rolling out a twelve-man development team at continental level, led by Jens Blatter (formerly BMC’s development squad big kahuna) and featuring veteran track star Morgan Kneisky and a young and primarily French group of hopefuls. This isn’t the sort of thing to set pulses racing but it makes a lot of sense to me and it is nice to see some development investment.

What happens next should be, I think, roughly the same as what happened in 2018. Mad Marc Madiot he may be, but this is a professionally run and laudably logical squad. There’s youth, there’s evidence of development, and it seems to me that they’re getting the balance between churn and stagnancy just about right.