Ahead of the 2021 cycling season, KONM is previewing every men’s WorldTour team. We’ll do two per week until all are covered. Obviously, given the Covid-related uncertainty surrounding us all, it’s hard to be definitive but for now we’re taking it as if the “normal” schedule of races will go ahead approximately as would have occurred pre-2020.
In AG2R Citroen, France may have found itself a genuinely competitive classics team, albeit one headlined by Belgians and a Luxembourgeois. On the surface at least, it appears that Vincent Lavenu and AG2R have made themselves a real threat to existing powerhouses like Deceuninck-Quick Step, Jumbo-Visma, Lotto Soudal et al.
Of course, Marc Madiot would probably object to this assertion and point out that his Groupama FDJ outfit represented the French strongly on the pavé and the bergs in 2020, but in terms of true classics pedigree, the current AG2R cohort looks a level above.
This is a team with ambition. They’re even talking about signing Julian Alaphilippe for 2022, so we have every reason to expect them to be very prominent in the monuments, spring classics and beyond.
With the exits of Romain Bardet and Pierre Latour, GC aspirations in major stage-races have been – perhaps temporarily – cast aside in favour of a more robust, Big Watts-type roster. Several noteworthy classicists have arrived, most obviously Greg Van Avermaet, but also Bob Jungels, Michael Schär, Stan Dewulf and Damien Touzé, with Lilian Calmejane another potential ingredient in AG2R’s one-day bouillabaisse, although his focus in recent times has often centred on grand tours and stage-races.
Dewulf, who won the 2018 Paris-Roubaix Espoirs, is an exciting talent but is likely to spend his 2021 helping others. Similar domestique roles surely await Touzé and Schär, with this trio forming a significant part of the backbone that should allow AG2R’s classics leaders to flourish.
These new recruits join a squad already boasting options in the classics department. Hello Oliver Naesen, Benoît Cosnefroy and Alexis Gougeard. Cosnefroy and Gougeard have frequently been pointed and aimed at multi-day events, but it’s reasonable to think that, with the shifting shape of this team, they will find themselves paying more attention to the classics in 2021.
For his part, Cosnefroy has indicated that the yellow jersey is on his radar while at the same time not ruling out a decent tilt at the March-April calendar. If you put forth an argument that Cosnefroy is more of a grand tour stage-hunter – or even just a straight-up stage-racer – than a classics guy, KONM wouldn’t object too much. Whatever his focus, he’s one to keep an eye on. You could probably apply a very similar summary to Gougeard, although the former is clearly the star turn of the two.
Meanwhile, the undisputed dual classic leaders Van Avermaet and Naesen will have their eyes on the Tour of Flanders as well as Paris-Roubaix, and could emerge as a formidable double-act if they both show up on the start lines there. They’re likely to be in the shakeup at all the traditional spring races (if and whenever they actually happen) and it’ll be nice to see GVA benefit from a more solid support unit than he’s had at his disposal in recent seasons.
At 35 (36 in May), it’s not unreasonable to suggest that time is running out for Van Avermaet to add another monument to the Roubaix he won in 2017. Standing on the top step at De Ronde would surely be the thing he wants more than anything in order to crown an outstanding career, but the competition in Flanders and beyond will be fierce. With the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert cementing their status as the pre-eminent names in a peloton already crammed with gifted classics racers, it’s hard to deduce what is now Van Avermaet’s level.
He may look back at the CCC years as something of a lost era, but the move to AG2R could revitalise him. Certainly, it will free him up from being marked as tightly as he has been recently. When you’re the only real star in a team and you happen to be wearing a bright orange kit, it’s easy for opponents to track you. Now, with Naesen and Jungels potentially working in tandem with him, it will be much harder for other teams to pin down Van Avermaet. No-one has ever doubted the Belgian’s engine and in 2021 he may get a chance to unleash it more freely.
For Naesen, 2021 will be a big year. Like Van Avermaet, he’ll benefit from the presence of another classics leader, but it’s fair to say that he needs some big results. Top 10s at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders in 2020 showed that Naesen is a serious contender, but he hasn’t won a classic since 2018 – and that was the Bretagne Classic in August. Podiums at Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke are his best spring showings so far in his career.
Realistically, if Naesen is going to step up and win one of the bigger springtime races, he needs to do it this year. He turned 30 in September and should be at the peak of his powers. Now is the time for this charismatic and talented Oostender to put himself in the elite tier of riders.
This is ground we’ve covered already in this preview, but Naesen’s best hope may lie in a well-executed tandem with his compatriot and co-leader. It’s going to be fascinating to watch that dynamic play out over the coming months.
Then, there’s Jungels. Since winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2018, the Luxembourgeois probably hasn’t established himself as firmly among the sport’s giants as most would have expected. Leaving aside his national championships, Jungels’ only victory in the past two seasons was a win at Kuurne Brussels Kuurne in March 2019 (which is no mean feat, of course).
In some ways, Jungels may have suffered because of his versatility. He can TT, he gets over the punchy climbs, he holds his own on the cobbles and the flat, and he has twice finished in the top 10 at the Giro d’Italia. The struggle for a directeur sportif is narrowing down his focus in order to avoid spreading his vast resources too thinly. Where is it best to use a man who can do nearly everything?
There’s also the sense that he gradually fell down the pecking order at Deceuninck-Quick Step, which may have contributed to the team deploying him as something of a Swiss army knife in recent seasons. DQS have an option for pretty much every parcours and Jungels may have simply fallen between the cracks. In a team stacked full of the sport’s best riders, there’s no shame in being the Plan B and it says a lot about Jungels that Patrick Lefevere & co were reluctant to let him go.
Hopefully, Lavenu can identify the strongest of Jungels’ strengths and pick the right targets for him. Where exactly that will be, we’ll have to wait and see, but it appears the team boss is hedging his bets to some extent.
“He [Jungels] will be one of the leaders of our team, in the classics, but also in stage races,” said Lavenu after the transfer announcement in August. “Bob has already finished twice in the top 10 of the Giro d’Italia, so we will assist him with our experience in this area and he will be supported by young climbers.”
Does that indicate a year, or a substantial part of a year, in the three-weekers for Jungels? From KONM’s point of view, it would be a little disappointing to see him targeting one or more of the grand tours. There’s no question he would be a superb asset as part of a team going out to hunt stages and may even be able to hang in there for another 10th-15th place. Only a fool would bet against him taking a win, but is that really the best application of his talents?
For a team manager aiming to please sponsors, the answer to that is probably a very firm “yes”. But for those who’d prefer to see Jungels maximising his capabilities in Flanders, the Ardennes and northern France, the response would be more along the lines of an “er, I dunno, maybe?”.
From a purely personal standpoint, KONM would peak Jungels for spring and autumn and completely ignore the grand tours, but that’s an idealism not based in the reality of team-financing and straightforward clout-chasing. Grand tours matter for teams, riders and fans. It’s possible that one of the reasons Jungels pitched up at AG2R in the first place is so he could be unshackled in the 21-dayers. At DQS, he was never going to be granted that freedom.
Still, we hope to see him given a decent shot in spring without having to think about a Giro/Tour in May/July. If a grand tour stage-hunt is absolutely necessary, perhaps let Jungels loose on the Vuelta after a summer rebuild.
Away from the star names, there’s an intriguing group of young riders coalescing at AG2R. We’ve already mentioned Cosnefroy, Gougeard, Touzé and Dewulf in a classics context, but there’s plenty more in the tank at this team. In particular, KONM is excited by the potential of Clément Champoussin, Dorian Godon and new arrival Ben O’Connor.
It may be asking too much to expect headline results in 2021 from the first two, but O’Connor has the ability to produce in major arenas, something he’s already proven with a very impressive win on stage 17 of the 2020 Giro. The Australian may not (yet) be in the ranks of the planet’s truly elite climbers, but the evidence indicates he’ll be someone we see consistently challenging for honours in the years to come. It will be interesting to see whether AG2R give him leadership in the middling stage races this season.
In 2019, 22-year-old Champoussin took a minor stage race largely the preserve of up-and-coming riders, the Giro della Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia (won by Tadej Pogačar the previous year; Jungels was second in 2012). Then, at the tail-end of 2020 he showed up nicely in the Vuelta, mixing it with the big GC favourites on stage 8 on the Alto de Moncavillo. He fell away in the overall standings but justified the idea that he is a prospect to be watched closely in future. Given the makeup of the team, KONM doesn’t foresee huge results for him in 2021; instead we’re hoping to see him really develop as a rider in order to prosper as a leader further down the line.
All-rounder Godon has flown under the radar somewhat, but his palmarès is beginning to fill up with notable results. He emerged as the victor at Paris-Camembert in September and followed that up with three top-10s on punchy stages at the Vuelta. You’d have to assume that a support role awaits Godon in 2020 but if he gets a chance to ride for himself he’ll surely seize it. Don’t be surprised to see this rangy Frenchman featuring in multiple grand tour breakaways; he could have a major tactical role to play up the road for AG2R’s leaders.
There are other riders on this team with the potential to make an impact, including Marc Sarreau, Andrea Vendrame and Nans Peters. Sarreau has lived in Arnaud Démare’s shadow for quite a while at Groupama FDJ, so perhaps his move to AG2R will rejuvenate his form. This isn’t a team chock full of sprinting talent, so he should find himself given a chance.
Competing with Sarreau for sprint hegemony will be Vendrame, although the Italian is probably more of a versatile fast-man and may spread his wings wider than bunch sprints. He won the Tro-Bro Léon in 2019 and finished sixth in the 2020 Giro d’Italia points classification, despite not making the podium on any stage. It’ll be interesting to see how Vendrame develops, as (judging by results) he seems to lack the big sprint speed but has a punch and the stamina to get through longer races.
Peters now has two grand tour stages to his name, both from the breakaway, and seems to be a superbly well-rounded rider. Taking into account his career so far, he’s likely to go to the grand tours with the brief of winning stages, so there’s probably not a huge amount to be added. The Frenchman is beginning to make a name for himself as one of the most skilled breakaway artists in the peloton and KONM expects him to build on that reputation in 2021.
2021 team hotness rating: 9/10
Transfer business rating: 9/10
Likely 2021 leaders: Greg Van Avermaet, Bob Jungels, Benoit Cosnefroy, Oliver Naesen
Potential breakout riders: Cosnefroy, Clément Champoussin, Dorian Godon
2021 kit rating: 9/10
Featured image: Bram Souffreau via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence, edited by KONM