The new-look AG2R Citroën squad was supposed to see the French team become a major force in the Classics, but as of now they have failed to find the top-level expected of them.
The loss of Romain Bardet effectively spelled the end of AG2R’s hopes as a Grand Tour racing force. The Frenchman had long carried the franchise’s hopes of a glorious victory in La Grande Boucle, but with him gone to the marauding, win-from-anywhere Team DSM, the team needed to refocus.
Instead of looking for a like-for-like replacement for Bardet, they decided to rebuild with the classics in mind, signing major talents in an attempt to replicate the key strength of Deceuninck-QuickStep; namely, the ability to win races with any of a handful of riders.
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Golden Greg van Avermaet was the flashiest signing of the lot, a good friend and training partner of stalwart AG2R pro, Oliver Naesen. The thought, it seemed, was to double up on brilliant Belgians. The team also signed Bob Jungels from Deceuninck, presumably hoping he could play the same ‘attack from long and take the pressure off the fast guys’ role as he had at the Belgian team.
AG2R picked up Stan De Wulf, another talented Belgian rider at the other end of his career to Greg van Avermaet, plus Gijs Van Hoecke and Michael Schär from the remnants of CCC Team. It all pointed to a renewed vigour in the one-day races.
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However, so far this season we haven’t quite seen it. Naesen and van Avermaet, rather than modelling their approach on Deceuninck who effectively isolate rivals on teams with only one ‘leader’ by attacking repeatedly and with different riders, seem instead to be cancelling one another out. Watching the other, content to finish lower down the results sheet if it means risking less.
E3 has been the team’s best performance this year. Naesen bagged fourth, with van Avermaet sixth. But neither made any meaningful attempts to try and bridge over to the leader, Kasper Asgreen. As we so often have seen in the classics, the pair of AG2R riders seemed more hesitant to gift a win to anyone else in the group they were in than enthusiastic about the potential for glory.
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In Gent-Wevelgem this past weekend, we saw Naesen and van Avermaet in the same group once again, seemingly content to chug their way to the finish rather than – as Antony Turgis of Total Direct Energie did – have either of them forge on solo in an attempt to bridge to the leading group. On paper, Wevelgem was a golden opportunity for the team; two of their biggest classics rivals, Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo, were unable to start due to Covid-19 cases within their squads.
In the end though, Naesen reached the final 10km in the pursuing group before eventually DNFing the race, while van Avermaet secured 12th – third in the sprint from the second group. Are these really the results the performance directors at AG2R had in mind when they signed the Olympic champion?
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