Team Focus 2019: AG2R La Mondiale

Nationality: French

2018 WT Ranking: 11th

2018 WT major wins: Stage 7 La Vuelta, Tony Gallopin; Stage 12 La Vuelta, Alex Geniez; Bretagne Classic, Oliver Naesen

Riders to watch in 2019: Romain Bardet, Oliver Naesen, Pierre Latour, Tony Gallopin

Notable for: Brown shorts; The distant, pensive gaze of Romain Bardet

KONM is actually quite a big fan of the AG2R boys.

They’re French, they wear brown bib shorts and in Romain Bardet have a leader so mercurial he produces ultra-violet light. What’s not to like?

Admittedly, the faecal hue of those shorts has proven quite unpopular with some of cycling’s more classically inclined observers, but KONM is fully on board. Their kit, on the whole, is quite attractive – brown/white/turquoise is a pretty unique colour-scheme – which is, as most will acknowledge, a significant factor in deciding whether or not to like a team.

As is the presence of a gifted and charismatic leader. For AG2R, Bardet certainly fits the bill. There’s something about this guy that intrigues. At times he can seem about as powerful and aggressive as a slightly damp roll of candyfloss. At others, he goes skywards as if carried aloft by a band of pouting, temperamental angels created in his own image.

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Bardet is hard to pin down. He often seems timid, a perception that isn’t helped by his cherubic, distance-gazing visage. This is a man, you feel, that opposing riders won’t be afraid to bully.

Ahead of the 2019 season, Bardet’s been making noises about the Giro-Tour double, perhaps forgetting that he was on the verge of physical and mental collapse after 2018’s Tour, a race during which he seemed to spend most of his time talking about how tired he was. Perhaps just stick to one or the other, Romain?*

*Of course, all this talk of the double may simply be diversionary tactics.

Aside from Bardet, Alex Geniez had an excellent year in 2018, winning two races outright (La Provence GC, La Marseillaise) and a stage of the Vuelta. Arguably, he was the team’s standout performer last season, but given he turns 31 in April, he will find his opportunities limited in favour of younger riders (I mean, obviously, right?)

Such as Pierre Latour, heir-apparent to Bardet and one of French cycling’s grandest espoirs. As pointed out by Philippa York, “France has a proud history of Grand Tour winners, but managing the pressure of being labelled a future champion hasn’t always been easy for riders…” – something about which Bardet knows plenty, and with which Latour will have to contend.

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Latour is the French national road TT champ, and took the Tour’s white jersey in 2018, so it’s no surprise York (or at least a Cycling News sub-editor) describes him as France’s “next big hope.” He looks a more solid rider than Bardet, climbs powerfully and has the TT pedigree to succeed in a Grand Tour. Depending on what the team have planned for Bardet, would it a huge surprise to see Latour get a major GC shot in 2019?

Then there’s Oliver Naesen, Belgian Classics-Monster™ and master of the cobbles. He’s rarely too far from the front of the springtime one-dayers, and placed in the top five on several occasions in 2018, including a victory in the Bretagne Classic.

The only question is whether AG2R have the resources to back him up during classics season. If so, there’s no reason Naesen can’t challenge for one of the bigger Belgian races. On the other hand, when you consider the results and performances Quick-Step are serving up these days, maybe there is.

Featured photo: Laurie Beylier/Flickr, edited by KONM

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Writer featured in/on FourFourTwo, Guardian, The Set Pieces, Sports Illustrated, R&K, TFT, Nightwatchman, World Soccer, Pickles, Cricketworld and more. Twitter: @HeavyFirstTouch

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