Words by Sadhbh O’Shea | Photo by A.S.O./SWpix.com
There will be no shortage of people counting down the remaining days of 2020. The year has been one of little joy for most and I do not think it would be too controversial to say that we would all be glad to see the back of it. By the end of this week, we will be in 2021 with the prospect of better things to come. The first day of the new year can be an opportunity to shed the vestiges of the old and make a fresh start.
The beginning of a new year also marks the beginning of a ritual unique to cycling where athletes, who have been forced to carry on a pretence of working for their old employer despite having already left, can finally become a whole part of their new squad. After months spent in an odd sort of limbo, 1 January is a chance for transferred riders to assume their new identity.
The impact the coronavirus pandemic had on the 2020 season and the financial pressure it imposed on teams made for a cycling transfer window like no other. While some teams were fairly reserved in their dealings, others splashed out and reconfigured large portions of their roster. Only time will tell how well these wholesale changes will work and if they will reap rewards.
One of the busiest teams in the transfer window was AG2R La Mondiale (soon to be AG2R-Citroen). The French outfit laid claim to 11 new riders, changing up more than a third of their 2020 line-up. The transformation has been quite striking given the largely stable core of riders they have had in recent years and will be one of the most intriguing of the 2021 season.
The departure of several team stalwarts, including Pierre Latour and their eternal Grand Tour hopeful Romain Bardet, has allowed the team to reassess their targets. What better time than with a new headline sponsor coming in for the first time in more than a decade? We all like a little certainty in our lives, perhaps more than ever at a time when the world outside us keeps changing at pace. However, in comfort we can also find complacency.
Aside from a stage win here or there from a handful of other riders, the team has largely relied on Bardet in recent years. It has paid dividends at times, bringing them Tour de France podiums in 2016 and 2017, but the 30-year-old’s stage racing performances, though good, had stagnated slightly. Meanwhile, their reliance on him was exposed this year following his head injury at the Tour de France. Nans Peters’ stage win prevented the race from being a failure, but the 2020 season would end up being one of their worst in almost a decade.
The team is not entirely diverting its efforts away from stage racing for the 2021 season and, with Peters and Benoît Cosnefroy added to the signing of riders such as Bob Jungels, Ben O’Connor and Lilian Calmejane, they have plenty of strong contenders for a stage victory. However, the signing of Jungels, Greg Van Avermaet and Michael Schӓr to join Oliver Naesen and his brother Lawrence has shifted the team’s focus, at least for 2021, towards the classics. Jungels and the promising Cosnefroy also look like a formidable partnership for the Ardennes races, where Bardet performed so well in 2018.
Oliver Naesen has shouldered much of the squad’s cobbled classics burden since he signed for them in 2017. The new influx of one-day specialists will ease some of that pressure and he seems happy to share leadership duties with his training partner Van Avermaet. As the team learned with Bardet at the Tour de France, it pays to have multiple cards to play at a race. Never is this truer than it is in the chaos of the cobbled classics.
Following the signing of Van Avermaet, team manager Vincent Laveneu joked that his new roster could rival that of Patrick Lefevere’s Deceuninck-QuickStep in the early season one day races. It was said with an element of jest, but the French team will hope that there is more than an element of truth in his comment. The loss of Stijn Vandenbergh will be a dent in that ambition, though it was the team’s choice not to rehire him, but Belgian signings Gijs Van Hoeck and Stan Dewulf will add to the local knowledge within the squad, which is crucial when it comes to the Flemish classics.
AG2R-Citroen’s partial overhaul of their team for 2021 shows plenty of promise and it will be intriguing to see in the spring whether or not it has worked.
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.