Continuing on with team capsules, of which I have maybe two more I can stand to crank out, let’s do a mashup of all the French teams! I previously said I didn’t really feel like focusing an entire post on teams like FDJ and AG2R because they haven’t done anything dramatically different on the road lately or in the transfer season. But throw in all six teams and you have more than enough to talk about.
Power is all about budgets these days, and you might think that French teams don’t rank all that high on the power index, but you’d be wrong. Is this reliable? Not sure, but here is where something called Statista pegged the budgets for every Tour de France team in 2021. Top of the heap was INEOS at €50mil, UAE at €35m, and dropping off from there. The French teams were (allegedly) as follows:
- AG2R-Citroën: €23m (5th)
- Groupama-FDJ: €20m (7th)
- Cofidis: €13m (12th)
- Arkea-Samsic: €10m (t16th)
- TotalEnergies: €10m (t16th)
- B&B Hotels-KTM: €7.5m (last)
If you add up all the French teams’ budgets, it is definitely more than the Belgian teams and the UK teams! So this is a totally fair system!
OK, I am not going to do a big spiel about the state of French cycling and how everyone in France decided to play stupid soccer instead, because it’s a bit of a tired story and anyway team nationality doesn’t mean what it did back in the La Vie Claire vs. Système U days. [Great kits though.] French cycling may have bottomed out during the big doping era, combining some of the worst excesses (hi Festina) with some of the most vigorous enforcement on a national level. And the lack of a French winner of the Tour de France since Hinault in 1985 is right up there with the fact that England can’t win a major soccer tournament. But by any rational measurement, the country’s cyclisme fortunes are about where you might expect them to be.
For starters, those expectations: France is a big country with lots of great cycling traditions, but what does that mean in the present? My family has a long history with tending sheep in the hills above Naples, thousands of years for all I know, but am I supposed to be ashamed of my pitiful crook-wielding skills? No, I am not. Because now I have a blog and the sheep have some combination of machines and dogs running their shit. And I see no reason to complain.
So, while France should be producing lots of fine cyclists, it’s a bit old-fashioned to try to put them on a pedestal above the Netherlands, Belgium, U.K., Spain, Italy, Colombia and so on. Traditions are nothing next to the availability of motivated athletes and training/development infrastructure, something you can find in all of these countries and many others. At the very top, I’m not sure one nation has an advantage over another, or not for long anyway (see marginal gains). The result is that however you want to rank the cycling-producing countries, the fact is that they are a lot harder to separate these days. France is up there somewhere with the best, no more and no less.
So if you look at the most recent rankings, you see three French teams in the top 15 of the World Tour. You see one French rider, Arnaud Demare, ranked seventh in wins, and another rider, Julian Alaphilippe, ranked fourth overall. If the Tour GC is the ultimate measure of success, well, Guillaume Martin (8th) and David Gaudu (11th) both hung around the top group last year, the latter just coming into his prime. The Bardet-Pinot-Barguil generation may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but not before producing two seconds (hi J.C. Peraud!) and two more thirds. A short list of the countries who would switch places with France in this time period include Spain, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland... pretty much everyone except Slovenia, the U.K., Italy, Columbia and the Netherlands.
What else? Giro d’Italia performances? Uh... OK, let’s skip that one. The one generalization about French cyclists that I am still willing to make is that, unless they ride for an Italian team (pretty rare), they are not burning out their legs in May. We have seen a couple jersey captures (Geoffrey Bouchard in Mountains, Nacer Bouhanni in points) over the past decade. So even when they are barely trying, French riders are showing up. World titles? Just the last two years, thanks Ala. Monuments? Three wins in the last six years (Pinot in Lombardia, Demare and Ala in MSR).
So no matter how you view the place of French cycling in the men’s World Tour, the data tells you they are right in the thick of things. They even have a charismatic winner, to go along with the statistical success. And I do mean charismatic:
So having killed off the old narrative, let’s dive into the details of where the top French teams are headed right now. NOTE: the rest of this post only includes the top six French teams named above. No more Alaphilippe references or comments on the continued relevance of Romain Bardet.
What We Thought And Got Last Year
I’m certainly guilty of not paying close enough attention to the French teams; they are always in the mix but struggling to stand out among the Quick Steps and Jumbos. And when it comes to the Tour, the flotilla of uber-young megastars kind of overshadows the steady presences of a Thibault Pinot or David Gaudu. But I have also learned not to be surprised when the French riders disrupt the narrative either.
What we got was a pretty solid year with plenty of intriguing signs.
Nudged up to 9th in our PdC World Rankings (via the FSA DS system), and 10th on CQRanking, thanks to a few factors. One was the addition of Greg Van Avermaet, who didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but got on the podium at Flanders and submitted a number of other decent results in the classics. On a lesser scale were the splashier results of sprinters Aurelien Paret-Peintre and Dorian Godon, who tallied four victories among the team’s 14 on the season. Stan Dewulf was another big mover, capping an outstanding fall campaign with a win at the Boucles de l’Aulne after making the finale of Paris-Tours and Binche-Chimay-Binche, adding to his second overall at the Tour de Wallonie earlier. And Ben O’Connor’s sudden rise to contention at the Tour was probably the best news of all. He and Clement Champoussin formed a nice little battalion of youth for the squad.
And Benoit Cosnefroy did what he has been doing, competing for a handful of classic wins, bagging three of them in 2021 including a nice win in the Bretagne Classic. No major dropoffs, although whatever they paid Bob Jungels was maybe not something they recouped in exposure value.
Steady as she goes? For the second time in three years, Groupama-FDJ racked up 24 victories, a slight improvement over the 21 wins in the reduced 2020 season. This consistency is itself something to celebrate — as the father of two teenagers, maintaining normalcy has counted as a major victory to me of late. It is down from their recent high of 33 wins in 2018, though, and their ranking — outside of the FSA DS, dropping to 14th on points simply by having had a good 2020 and staying about on par in 2021 when more points were available. In other words, you can ding them for some slight drop, but not the kind of drop that you would want to infuse with much meaning, if it meant anything at all.
The biggest news were the drops in points by their two veteran mainstays, Thibaut Pinot and Arnaud Démare. The latter, it happens, sprint results can fluctuate, and the main culprit for Démare was a somewhat debilitating crash at the Tour that left him outside the time cut a few days later; he finished up strong taking Paris-Tours. Pinot has been held back by major injuries for several seasons now, so while it wasn’t a surprise for him to see his results slide, they slid even further than before.
But while all that was going on, David Gaudu leveled up as a consistent point scorer in both the grand tours and the classics. He outsprinted the likes of Hirschi, Almeida and Cosnefroy to win a stage of the Tour de Luxembourg, he beat Roglic, Pogacar and Valverde for a stage in the Pais Vasco, and he generally padded his resume with consistent performances across the entire season. So too did Stefan Kung pack in the points, largely in time trial victories but those were enough to earn him a European title and a GC win in Valencia. Jake Stewart surprised the cobbles guys with second at the Omloop. Attila Valter spent a few days in the maglia rosa and turned in an overall consistent season, ahead of the Giro’s trip to Hungary this spring.
Points-wise, Cofidis have been stuck in about the same place for several seasons, but if you want to call 2021 a success, there’s an easy way to do so: counting victories. Following a fine season of 20 wins in 2019, Cofidis managed just two in the COVID season, but bounced back this past year with a respectable 14 wins. In terms of a trajectory, it’s all good news, even the drop from 20, which was fueled largely by Jesus Herrada and Christophe Laporte going bananas in smaller events. Now, those two still managed a healthy five wins, along with a fine victory at the Mercan’Tour by Guillaume Martin and a lucky 7 sprint wins by Elia Viviani. The bad news is that they paid for and expected much more from Viv, but with top tens by Martin in the Tour, Vuelta and Paris-Nice, the season was hardly a disappointment.
The Ark have been hanging around the end of the World Tour roll call for a couple years now, which makes them probably the second-best of the second division, outside of Alpecin-Fenix. The worst you can say about them is that in 2021 guys like Dan McLay and Nacer Bouhanni didn’t finish off as many sprints as they possibly could have, and Nairo Quintana didn’t rebound to his age-24 form in the grand tours. Their victory totals dipped a bit in 2021 as a result of not finishing sprints. But there was barely any other difference of note. While not flashy, at least their diminished stars in Quintana and Warren Barguil do actually continue to deliver results. They can also point to some promising signs from Connor Swift, Alan Riou and Bram Welten for more encouragement.
Starting to run out of things to say. TE are another Pro Conti team and look like it, relying on medium-shots at medium-level races to stay afloat, and were more or less highlighted by Anthony Turgis taking second in KBK. Their most recent strong season was 2019 when Niccolo Bonifazio got hot, but that is getting a bit out of date. Mathieu Burgaudeau turned in several top tens in races that might make you feel better about their direction.
Unlike Arkea, they don’t ever rank up there among the World Tour squads, a reflection of their budget and profile. Bryan Coquard has been their long-time talisman (until this year) but Franck Bonnamour more or less took his place, coming close to a major win in several races.
FSA Directeur Sportif Rankings
I covered the teams ups and downs above, but on the individual level, Gaudu was the top scorer from the French teams at 11th overall, and Kung at 17th gives Groupama-FDJ a very respectable two riders in the top 20. Laporte, Cosnefroy and Viviani all made the to 50.
Three Nine Highlights
- Benoit Cosnefroy outkicks Alaphilippe for Bretagne Classic. Just 26, Cosnefroy has leveled up to the big time fro AG2R with a handful of wins, none bigger than this, though his third place in the European Championships saw him beat several of the sport’s biggest names for a medal. His best results tend to come on home soil, so a big result in the Ardennes would be a major goal for 2022.
- Clement Champoussin wins final Vuelta mountain stage. Citroen-AG2R gets in on the youth wave with both a charismatic mountain stage win and a 16th place overall for the young Niçois.
- AG2R’s Ben O’Connor climbs to fourth overall at the Tour de France. After all my rambling about French riders’ success, lo and behold a French team almost rode a foreigner to a podium spot. The Aussie used a six-minute “gift” (from Pogacar) of a stage win at Tignes to graduate from the stage hunters to the GC, but he made it stick too with an equally impressive turn through the Pyrenees among the Heads of State.
- Guillaume Martin top ten at both the Tour and Vuelta. Not that he’s been close to winning or even podium contention, but he’s creeping up the list slowly but surely. At least Cofidis can realistically imagine a scenario where everything breaks right and they have a shot at racing for a really meaningful overall result. Stage hunting gets old.
- Alan Riou wins Classique Loire Atlantique. Nice win for the kid, he could be a factor in lots of Coupe de France races.
- Connor Swift’s breakout. Unforeseen, but he took Tro-Bro Leon and the overall at Tour Poitou-Charentes, earning the call-up to the Tour team for Arkea-Samsic.
- Démare takes the sprint win at Paris-Tours. See item #9 for details. Overall, it’s just nice that Démare just keeps paying the bills year after year. He’s France’s biggest star after Alaphilippe.
- Aurelien Paret-Peintre puts his name out there at GP La Marseillaise. Always good to come into a season off the top rope, as they say.
- Franck Bonnamour second in Paris-Tours. This might not be something Bonnamour would agree with, second place is frustrating to the riders themselves, and it was one of a handful of very near misses in 2021 for the Breton — including sixth in his home region Bretagne Classic. But this is a great result and came after a long day out front with Stan Dewulf, battling crosswinds and gravel, and still having the power to hold off Jasper Stuyven for second place.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Démare OOT at the Tour. Big blow to a pretty big team’s biggest ambitions.
- Bouhanni’s suspension for putting Jake Stewart into the barriers at the Cholet-Pays de la Loire. Bouhanni then says he suffered a flood of racial abuse, and came back out of sorts, completing an all-around bad season with no wins.
- Viviani bolts to INEOS after Cofidis pretty much pushes him out the door. Not sure what the story behind that was, but there was some pretty blunt talk around his departure. No love lost there. Not enough results either.
Comings and Goings
AG2R-Citroën: Julian Duval, Ben Gastauer and Matti Frank retire; Gougeard goes to B&B; Gallopin to Trek; Bidard to Cofidis. Incoming are a quartet of kids with some nice results but you know, kids.
Groupama-FDJ: Bonnet and Delage retire; Ben Thomas to Cofidis; Guglielmi to Arkea; Alexys Brunel to UAE. They poached Welten from Arkea, Storer from DSM and Pacher from B&B, while promoting Lewis Askey from the Dev Squad. [Probably notable that the Dev Squad lost four riders to rival WT teams.]
Cofidis: Loads of changes. Edet, Laporte and the Vivianis are the major departures, plus several retirements and Fernando Barcelo to Caja Rural. Incoming are veterans like Armee, Cimolai, Coquard, Kreder, Villella, Waldscheid, plus some young lottery tickets in Toumire and Zingle.
Arkea-Samsic: Lost Welten to FDJ, along with Diego Rosa and Thomas Boudat. Bringing in Edet, Michel Ries, Hofstetter, and youngsters Guglielmi, Kevin Vaquelin and Alessandro Verre.
TotalEnergies: Petit out; several retirees of no great note beyond Damien Gaudin. Brought in PETER FUCKING SAGAN and his Bora mates Oss, brother Juraj and Maciej Bodnar.
B&B Hotels-KTM: Out are Coquard, Pacher and a bunch of retirees. Incoming are Gougeard and a flotilla of kids, Heidemann, Koretzky, Lagree, Laurance, and Parisella.
So Now What?
In general, I am not sure you can expect radical changes from the top two teams, but Cofidis shook things up a lot in terms of volume, and nobody made a bigger spash than TotalEnergies. Like, anywhere.
AG2R-Citroën: Not expecting any big moves; Champoussin and O’Connor offer them hope, but the grand tours are pretty packed, so improvement may be more qualitative than quantifiable. Doron, Dewulf and Cosnefroy are likely to come up with some nice results. Berthet and Prodhomme had nice espoirs results which could translate. But the missing piece that could really change their prospects would be a leveling up of the Cobbles Squad. Van Avermaet is who he is now, at 37, but the fortunes of Oliver Naesen, should he rediscover his mysteriously lost form, would make AG2R a player in April.
Groupama-FDJ: Is there a reason they are leaking young riders, or are they just trading out of a couple guys for a couple others they like better? Having their development team raided sounds ominous. But everywhere else there are reasons to be excited. It’s fun to talk about kids who might do something, but Valter has already shown up, coming into his age-24 year (and hopefully lining up at the Giro start in Budapest). Gaudu and Démare will assure their regular relevance, possibly even at the Tour. AG2R have a higher floor but FDJ have the higher ceiling, I think.
Cofidis: To me, the point of thinking about Cofidis is watching to see if they can become bigger players in the bigger races, or if they will just be another team with some useful guys who score points and occasionally win. And the answer to the question lies with Martin. At 29, he isn’t likely to challenge Rogs and Pogs for yellow, but he might come closer at one of the other tours. His consistency is impressive. That’s one of the biggest keys to stage racing.
Arkea-Samsic: Like Cofidis but maybe a bit more dangerous? Not in the GC, but everywhere else, guys like Barguil, Bouhanni, Riou, Connor Swift, even Nairo, they can all strike for wins in pretty decent races? Maybe that’s overly optimistic, and if Bouhanni doesn’t settle into a decent spot, they will go unnoticed this year.
TotalEnergies: Obviously Sagan is the story, but more broadly, TE have succeeded in building one unit, the classics team, into a force for the top teams to reckon with. Sagan brought Oss and his brother to the team which already featured Anthony Turgis (8th in Flanders) and the aging but decorated Niki Terpstra, making for quite a talented and experienced unit.
B&B Hotels-KTM: Mostly lottery tickets. Bonnamour is likely to have success. This Canadian kid Parisella sounds like he might be worth keeping an eye on. They’re a wild card.