The 2018 season wasn't without its hurdles for Cedric Vasseur and his Cofidis team but the Frenchman can be content with a number of highlights as he looks to solidify the French team's foundations ahead of the 2019 campaign.
The team's year-on-year win tally was improved upon significantly, while the fractious relationship between the management and Nacer Bouhanni was sutured just enough to ensure that the sprinter turned his year around with a Vuelta a Espana stage win.
The continued emergence of Christophe Laporte and the fact that several high paid riders were shipped out and replaced with fresher talent means that Vasseur can count his maiden season in charge as a success. However, the former Tour de France yellow jersey is well aware that there is no time to rest on his laurels, and with his first full winter in charge, he has set about improving Cofidis. Clouds are still on the horizon: Bouhanni has one year left on his contract and the situation must be handled delicately; the team were unable to land another proven leader, and many of the new recruits can be described as gambles.
"What I've tried to do this year is increase the level of the team and I've kept Laporte, who was out of contract. That was the first deal of the year. We've signed him for the next three years and then we've also built in different ways," Vasseur tells Cyclingnews, before pointing out that when he arrived at the team in November 2017 all but one of the spaces on the 2018 roster had been filled.
Can you build around Bouhanni?
Cofidis' 2018 campaign as a whole could be described as a season of transition. For the last few years the French outfit had relied too heavily on Bouhanni, and despite his clear talent, the Frenchman was inconsistent at best. This season, however, Laporte won six races, while the team in total won 21 times through 10 different riders. The shift of burden from Bouhanni's shoulders may have caused ruptures during the opening months of the year - including a bust-up with Roberto Damiani - but Vasseur believes that his most successful sprinter has learned from the experience.
"The plan is simple. We want Nacer to have a better season than he did in 2018. The season wasn't a mess because he won six races and a Vuelta stage. It's also true that the relations weren't always perfect. He took a bit more time than I expected to understand the new team strategy," Vasseur explains.
"He came to the team four or five years ago and at that point, everything was focused around him. The team put everything on his shoulders and I think it was too heavy for him. This season we explained to him that he would have less pressure on his shoulders. By the end of the year, he understood that he had to prove his leadership on the road and this year maybe was the most important for him as he learned how a leader needs to act. It's not about just who has the biggest salary. That's not enough. If you want to be a good leader then you have to give a lot more."
Bouhanni's position on the team going forward still comes with a level of uncertainty. Whether he or Cofidis want to renew their contractual relationship beyond 2019 remains unknown, and with the Frenchman on by far the biggest contract on the team, there could be a feeling within the management that the financial resources could be better spent elsewhere. For now, Vasseur is willing to be patient but the onus is certainly on the rider and his team to ensure that 2019 goes off without any of the acrimony that has run before.
"Now Nacer knows perfectly that 2019 is his last year under contract. It doesn't mean that it's his last year with Cofidis because if everything goes well then there will be interest in keeping him. If he wins 20 races next year it will be important for us to have him in the team."
Vasseur's plan is to ensure that both Laporte and Bouhanni are better supported in races and as a result, the lead-out train that runs through Cofidis has been strengthened. There was a dearth of proven lead-out men on the market this year but Zico Waeytens has been signed from Verandas and comes with years of experience at WorldTour level. Still just 27, and with a point to prove after being released by Sunweb at the end of 2017, the Belgian rider will be tasked with leading out either Laporte or Bouhanni, depending on race schedules.
"I noticed that during the Tour de France that we didn't have a real lead-out for Laporte," Vasseur says.
"I want him and Bouhanni to have a real lead-out man. We were in talks with a lot of riders but eventually, we agreed with Zico who was the leadout rider for John Degenkolb two years ago. He comes with experience of the WorldTour, even if this year he was competing at a lower level in Belgium."
"This means we have two leadout guys. One for the races Nacer is doing, and another for the races that Christophe rides in. We've not decided who will race with who and maybe we'll make a switch but certainly one of the lead-outs will have an important job in the Tour de France next year."
Scouting the market for bargains
Along with the lead-out train, Vasseur has strengthened other areas of the team.
Daniel Navarro has moved to Katusha - thus freeing up funds - with Darwin Atapuma and Jesper Hansen joining from UAE Team Emirates and Astana, respectively. Atapuma has not raced since the Tour de France but if he can return to his 2017 level then Cofidis could have an exciting climber in their ranks. Hansen has spent the majority of his career working for others, but the lack of climbing power at Cofidis means that the Dane will have greater opportunities for himself. These may not be high-profile names or proven winners but Vasseur considers them a step in the right direction.
"Hansen finished ninth in Catalunya and if you look at the top ten it's a really high level. We want more of a presence in the mountains and that's why we've signed Atapuma. In 2017 he was second on the Izoard at the Tour behind Warren Barguil, and I was following the race on a motorbike for television that day. I thought that Darwin could win that stage but Barguil was too strong. I really think that he didn't have a perfect year and he was working for Fabio Aru, who wasn't at the top level. It's difficult to play your own cards when you're working for a leader who isn't at 100 per cent. I'm sure that Darwin can come back to his best level and with Mate, and Jesus Herrada we have really strong guys. They'll all be at the Vuelta for sure."
Natnael Berhane, Pierre-Luc Périchon, Filippo Fortin, former U23 World time trial champion Marco Mathis and the talented young sprinter Damien Touze add further depth to the team, with the roster increasing from 25 to 28 riders next year. The jump in numbers is at odds with most other teams but Vasseur insists that the number of boots on the ground needed to be increased as the team plan for a possible move into the WorldTour further down the line.
"At the start of 2018, I wasn't sure if we had eight strong riders for the Tour de France. Now I think we have 14 or 15 guys to choose from," Vasseur adds.
"If we want to get WorldTour team we have to act like we're one already. Even if we're not one. We'll have 28 riders like most WorldTour team and I think 2019 is going to be a transitional year for us. We have signed riders from the WorldTour, and with WorldTour experience. Everything I'm trying to build is with that WorldTour focus."
Despite an eclectic batch of signings, Vausseur has not recruited a marquee rider. Part of the explanation comes down to funds. Cofidis have a high budget for a Pro Continental team but Bouhanni's salary, plus the jump in roster size meant that Vasseur had limited scope in the market. However, Vasseur also argues that bringing in another high-profile rider could have destabilized the ever-improving spirit within the team.
"If we go out and get a Landa or an Alaphilippe it's already bad for the minds of the guys like Nacer. My hope is that during 2019 we find our two or three big guns - and they could be with Nacer," he said.
"We really struggled with making the budget work. Nacer has a really important salary in the team. The salaries that we lost this year weren't enough for us to talk to another big gun. I also think that it would have been unfair to sign another big rider. We started a plan with Nacer and Christophe, and the other guys, and I think you need more than one year to get used to that new strategy. I really want the team from 2018 that learned a lot to have another season together. When I came here we had one rider at the front of the bunch, one in the middle and five at the back. There was no real team spirit but we've really worked on that but to see the fruit from that you need two years."
Vasseur has certainly lit a fire under Cofidis in the last twelve months. Bouhanni - despite early struggles - has returned to something approaching his best; Laporte has kicked on, and the flock of new signings should lessen the burden placed on the team's two fast-men.
The recruitment of Atapuma and Hansen represent exactly where Cofidis are on other fronts but Vasseur has the French outfit moving in the right direction. Their last Tour stage win came all the way back in 2008, and while only time will tell whether the 2019 collective is the one that ends that drought, the next twelve months will prove an interesting time and if Vasseur can add consistency to Bouhanni's armoury then maybe coming closer to twenty victories won't be so impossible.
"In playing different cards, like Atapuma in the mountains, Laporte in other races, it will be something exciting for Nacer. He likes boxing, of course, and he likes to fight. I want him to fight for the win all the time. I think 2019 will be an easier year. When I arrived I don't think he knew me. I think that he saw me as a guy who wanted to take his power but what happened? We won 21 races, with ten different guys. Nacer won six races and one stage of the Vuelta. Surely, he thinks now 'ah, Vasseur isn't so bad.'"