#18 â€“ AG2R-La Mondiale (Preview Ranking: #19)
What We Said:
If it werenâ€™t their brown shorts and several days in yellow during last yearâ€™s Tour, would you have even known this team existed?Â They won five races!Â Were it not for Rinaldo Nocentiniâ€™s July exploits, Vincent Lavenuâ€™s boys might not have even lived to see another year. (Is there an echo in here?)
But this yearâ€™s off to a promising start.Â Nocentini claims he wants to win Paris-Nice; he appears to be on his way to the form necessary to do so following a 2nd place on Mont Faron in the Med Tour and a stage win in the Tour de Haut Var.Â Paris-Nice is another event entirely; but if Nocentini can come close, perhaps winning a stage along the way, it will go a long way to ensuring this teamâ€™s place in the peloton for perhaps another year or twoâ€”perhaps easing some pressure come July.
Overall, Nocentiniâ€™s a good representative of the type of rider most likely to find success for this team: cunning, punchy, and aggressive when necessary.Â This is a team that does best when it takes advantage of opportunities presented by others teams trying to dictate the outcome of a race.Â Case in point: Cyril Dessel.Â Desselâ€™s not the type of rider to initiate a race-winning breakaway; but he is just strong enough to hang on for dear life, and perhaps accelerate away for the win at the moment you least expect it.Â Did you know that Tadej Valjavec has had two top-10 overall finishes in Grand Tours since 2008?
Man of the Hour: Tough to say there is one as any number of Ag2râ€™s riders could lead the team in wins this season.Â Of them all, Nocentini seems the most primed for successâ€”at least at this point in time.Â He could pull some wins in minor stage races, and when in form is an outside contender for a race like Fleche Wallonne.
On the Hot Seat: Everyone is on the hot seat.Â Like many French teams, no roster spot is safe on a team in need of a few quality wins each year to guarantee the renewals of it sponsorship agreements.Â In particular, Vladimir Efemkin hopes to return to his form from 2008, a year when he finished 11th in the Tour.Â He needs a solid 2010 to prove the result wasnâ€™t a flash in the pan.
Up-and-Comer: Nicholas Roche turned heads in last yearâ€™s Tour with several high finishes.Â Heâ€™s a talented rider with all-round abilities.Â Ag2râ€™s hoping 2010 will be the year he gets his first big win.Â He and Garminâ€™s Daniel Martin are the future of Irish cycling.
Best Pick-Up: You have to love someone with the last name â€œChampionâ€. Â Dimitri Champion scored the sweetest kind of revenge when he won the French National Road Race Championship for the low-budget Bretagne-Armor Lux team the year after getting dropped by BBox.Â He also won the 1.1 Tour FinistÃ©re and last yearâ€™s Etape du Tour, which finished atop Mont Ventoux.Â Heâ€™s been seen often at the front of races so far this seasonâ€”hereâ€™s hoping he has what it takes to score a few wins while wearing his national colors.
Biggest Loss: See BBox.
What We Saw:
I guess you could say that AG2R put in the type of performance we have come to expect from most French teams nowadays: several wins on home soil, a win or two abroad, and the all-important stage victory at the Tour de France.Â At the end of the day, Lavenuâ€™s boys netted 19 winsâ€”although the numberâ€™s a bit inflated with two stage victories from Januaryâ€™s Tropicale Amissa Bongo included on the tally.
Nocentini started the ball rolling in February with wins in the Med Tour and Haut Var, followed by a few national wins by Christophe Riblon (the Boucles des Sud ArdÃ©che) and Anthony Ravard (two stages at the Circuit de la Sarthe). Then Switzerlandâ€™s Martin Elmiger really opened the teamâ€™s account, winning the 4 Days of Dunkirk (and a stage) before taking the Swiss National Road Race Championship.
But all eyes were on Christophe Riblon in July as he fought his way through the Pyrenees to take a dramatic stage win on Ax-3 Domaines in Stage 14.Â Some may forget that Riblon took the Most Aggressive Rider on the same day that Rinaldo Nocentini took yellow last year; he clearly has a nose for the right breakaway.
From there, Anthony Ravard was the teamâ€™s best rider for the rest of the season.Â He took three wins, the most impressive of which came at the French semi-classic Paris-Bourges only a few weeks after Elmiger won the GP de la Somme.
That said, AG2Râ€™s best results just might have been a 15th and a 7th. Iâ€™m of course talking about Irishman Nicholas Rocheâ€™s GC rides at the Tour and Vuelta, respectively.Â With courageous and cunning rides in both grand tours, AG2R now boasts two things no other French squad can match: a legitimate top-10 Tour contender with a surname and pedigree to match his talent (if only Rocheâ€™s father were Bernard Hinault); and a place in the Pro Tour for 2011.
Most Valuable Rider: Youâ€™ll notice a trend here over the next few weeks: the 2010 most valuable riders on the majority of French teams will be those who managed to win stages at the Tour de Franceâ€”for obvious reasons.Â In this case, Riblon gets the nod for his gutsy ride on Stage 14.
Biggest Disappointment: Nocentini was on a tear this past February until a crash left him with a broken leg.Â Itâ€™s too bad, as the Italian looked as if he were bound for big things.
Biggest Surprise: I for one was a bit surprised by Rocheâ€™s development into a grand tour rider this season.Â I had him pegged as more of one-day, all-rounderâ€”not someone with the stamina and consistency to contend for 3 weeks.Â While his 15th at the Tour was certainly a terrific result, I think his 7th at the Vuelta was more impressiveâ€”it was a much harder race, and one in which there were less riders to overshadow the Irishman.Â Now the question remains: like Lottoâ€™s Jurgen Van Den Broeck, can he turn a 15th in 2010 into a top-5 in 2011?
Look for #17 layer todayâ€”for now, share your comments below.