News feature, June 24, 2008
Halfway through: A review of the ProTour teams' season to date (Part 2)
What was the first half of the 2008 season like for the 18 ProTour teams? Who can be satisfied with their performance and who needs improvement? Or, as the Cyclingnews staff asked, 'What went right and what went wrong?'
Here is part two of a team-by-team analysis of the first half of the year. The teams are listed in no particular order.
Française des Jeux
What went right: The team's star rider, Philippe Gilbert, did not miss out on a successful early season, winning races as soon as in February at the Challenge of Mallorca. He travelled back to his beloved Northern Europe in March to win the Belgian season opener, Omloop Het Volk, as well as the less famous GP Le Samyn in an almost untouchable manner. In May, Sébastien Chavanel - not to be confused with his brother, Sylvain, at Cofidis - secured a stage and the overall win of the Tour de Picardie, which, in addition to the rest of the team's performances, put the squad to the top of the teams classification of the French Cup and the eighth spot on the ProTour team ranking.
What went wrong: After a great start, Gilbert failed to deliver on his home turf in the Ardennes Classics. Since the month of March, the team directed by Marc Madiot is fuelled by good placings, but no major victories. Frédéric Guesdon and Christophe Mengin, the team's veterans, were unable to shine in the Spring Classics, even though Guesdon finished 11th in Paris-Roubaix and won the Tro Bro Leon later in April. One of the team's young promises, Jelle Vanendert, will be out of action for a long time after a heavy crash in the Dauphiné injured his hip.
Holding out for: Rémy di Gregorio, the team's new rising star climber, has been putting on some good form in time for the Tour de France. After crashing out of last year's Tour, Di Gregorio is eager to race up to France's expectations as the "new Virenque". Gilbert has also recovered well in view of the Grand Tour, where Sandy Casar is the team's GC hope. Both Di Gregorio and Casar, who placed sixth overall in the Tour de Romandie, left the Dauphiné Libéré a little frustrated, which could be a good - or a bad - sign for July.
Overall: Madiot cannot be completely satisfied with the outcome of the first half of 2008, but it hasn't been a catastrophe, either. The French team's biggest rendezvous is and remains the Tour de France, and much will depend on the squad's outcome in the Grand Tour. Madiot's younger riders are coming along well, so the team's future should be bright if the four-leafed clover remains faithful. A victory in the French Championships would mean much to Madiot, who won the title 21 years ago.
AG2R La Mondiale
By Hedwig Kröner
What went right: The team started out well with Alexandre Usov scoring the first victory in the Tour of Langkawi in Malaysia, far away from the squad's home country, France. This was quickly followed by another win as Rinaldo Nocentini came up to form at the GP Lugano, and showed he was in contention for the overall win against Davide Rebellin in Paris-Nice, the team's first important stage race. Cyril Dessel finally recovered from toxoplasmosis, which had annihilated his 2007 season, and rocketed to a first relieving victory in the 4 Days of Dunkirk. The 2006 wearer of the yellow jersey repeated his feat at the Volta a Catalunya and in the Dauphiné, setting high expectations for the Tour de France.
What went wrong: After achieving its two victories in Malaysia and Italy early in the season, AG2R team director Vincent Lavenu had to wait quite some time for follow-up results. Always keeping in mind the teams classification of the ProTour, Lavenu started getting nervous as his riders weren't as competitive as hoped in cycling's premium calendar during the Classics season, 'merely' bringing in victories on the Continental Circuit - but neither in 'French Cup' races. From early March until mid-May, the team remained completely anonymous. Not to speak of former values such as sprinter Jean-Patrick Nazon and Sylvain Calzati, who seem to have lost all interest in racing.
Holding out for: Now, the team's new signings Tadej Valjavec and Vladimir Efimkin have to prove their worth in the Tour de France overall ranking. While AG2R is mainly looking for a stage victory with Dessel back on track, especially Efimkin was brought in to achieve a top ten placing. Climber John Gadret is also hoped to repeat his excellent 2006 Giro d'Italia achievements at the Tour. Lavenu might be thinking of adding a Classics rider or another sprinter to his team next year if he doesn't want the 2008 Spring drought to be repeated. The younger riders are eager to learn but cannot keep up at the moment.
Overall: The first half of the 2008 season remains dominated by a feeling of frustration, even if Dessel's three recent victories have calmed down Lavenu's temper. The team is far back on the French Cup ranking, won by Lloyd Mondory in 2006, as well as in the ProTour team ranking. Fortunately, the squad can rely on experienced riders such as José-Luis Arrieta, Stéphane Goubert and Martin Elmiger, who seem to be holding the team together during the more difficult times.
By Paul Verkuylen
What went right: They started the season out the right way. Mark Renshaw won the opening stage of the Tour Down Under, the first ProTour event of the season, while Jeremy Hunt showed that he can still sprint with a victory in the Tour of Langkawi. From here, its main sprinter, Thor Hushovd, took over the reins with wins in the prologue of the Volta a Catalunya and Paris-Nice. He also took the points classification for both events. A strong third in Omloop Het Volk was an early sign of good things to come in the Spring Classics, but sickness sidelined him in his preferred event, Paris-Roubaix. New signing Simon Gerrans proved his worth taking the second stage of the Critérium International and Alexandre Botcharov took a stage and the overall at the Tour Méditerranéen. Hushovd once again came to the fore at the Dauphiné Libéré, where he took over the leader's jersey on day two after a close second place in the prologue. He held on to yellow for two days before conceding it in the time trial. Pierre Rolland and Dimitri Fofonov took centre stage from there with Rolland taking the overall mountains classification and Fofonov a stage.
What went wrong: Hushovd got sick in the Classics, and there really wasn't anyone else for them to turn to. Mark Renshaw showed early that he can take wins in bunch sprints, but has maybe not brought the success that they had hoped for.
Holding out for: The Tour de France of course. Being a French team, the Tour is the number one priority, success here can distinguish a good from a bad season. With that in mind its star riders have been studiously preparing for the starters gun, Hushovd has shown he is in form for the sprint at the Dauphiné, while Gerrans' win in the first stage of the Route du Sud after serving as a faithful lieutenant to Hushovd at the Dauphiné is a sign of things to come.
Overall: 3.5 stars. With the team looking for a new sponsor for next year, the next few months will be all important, especially the Tour de France. Apart from a few minor setbacks with Hushovd getting sick during the classics, the team can be happy with what they have achieved so far this season. Yet with the Tour being the major focus every year, Crédit Agricole is probably hoping that the best is yet to come.
Cofidis, Le Crédit par Téléphone
By Paul Verkuylen
What went right: Sylvain Chavanel, that's what! Chavanel, once thought of as France's next big hope for Tour success, finally came of age, but not where everyone thought he would. Racing for the first time at the Dwars door Vlaanderen he found that racing over Belgian roads in horrible weather conditions actually suits him. He became the first French winner of the race, and then backed that up just four days later with victory at the Brabantse Pijl in similar conditions. A win in stage six of Paris-Nice capped off a successful early season for Chavanel. Nick Nuyens was strong in the Belgian Spring Classics. A second place in Het Volk was followed up with a second at the Tour of Flanders, where he was out-classed by a stronger Stijn Devolder (Quick Step). Hervé Duclos-Lassalle, son of French legend Gilbert, also showed he has what it takes with a win in the GP de la Marseillaise, but other than that the team has been fairly quiet. In total it has 14 wins this season, five of which come courtesy of Chavanel. Rein Taaramae and Stéphane Augé have two a piece.
What went wrong: Nothing really. Cofidis may have a ProTour license but they rely more on one or two big names for their wins. With that in mind their season is progressing as per usual.
Holding out for: Is there an echo in here? The Tour de France of course. Like every other French team the big loop of France is the number one priority, so Cofidis will be hoping for a strong showing from its riders. Look for them in breaks during the first week as they don't really have a sprinter who can mix it up with the big boys. Not that that means they won't try. After that, a few riders may be going to the Olympics, so success in China could be considered a victory for the team.
Overall: 3 stars. Cofidis has had some good success so far this season, with its number one French rider finally breaking through for a big win. Nick Nuyens has been threatening to win some big races for years and his second place in both Flanders and Het Volk will keep the management happy for now. Good results, but could do better if it had stronger leadership.
By Laura Weislo
What went right: After learning that title sponsor Bouygues Telecom had signed on for another two years in January, the French squad seemed to hit its stride in the first half of 2008. The team used to be known mainly for the breakaway antics of Thomas Voeckler, but he has become more dangerous since he learned to focus his energies on moves that can win races. This season he took the overall win in the Circuit de la Sarthe on bonus seconds, and then went on to win the Grand Prix de Plumelec-Morbihan. Several young riders have brought in some major victories. Yuri Trofimov, a 24 year-old in his first year in the ProTour took a stage and the overall in the Etoile de Bessèges, and then turned heads when he held off the charge of GC favourites in the Dauphiné Libéré stage to Morzine to net the squad's best result of the year to date. The Spring Classics went well for the team, with Aurélien Clerc netting a podium finish in Gent-Wevelgem and Jérôme Pineau hitting the top ten in the Amstel Gold Race. In addition, the team also excelled in Africa and Asia. Rony Martias won both the Tour Ivorien de la Paix and Tropicale Amissa Bongo, and Mathieu Sprick took a stage and second overall in the Tour de Langkawi.
What went wrong: The squad had been interested in signing Tom Boonen, but broke off negotiations after the Belgian tested positive for cocaine. "We have a very strict policy in our team. Anybody who's got problems with drugs isn't welcome in our team," said manager Jean-René Bernaudeau.
Holding out for: Stage wins at the Tour - the goal of every French team. Their best chance is with a breakaway in the latter part of the race, or perhaps a sprint win from Spaniard Xavier Florencio.
Overall: After struggling to find its footing as the Brioches La Boulangère squad in 2003 and 2004, the team of Bernaudeau has begun to live up to its ProTour status in 2008. With young riders like 2007 Paris-Roubaix espoirs winner Damien Gaudin rising up from the Vendée U feeder squad and two more years of funding, the future of the team is looking good. They've got a solid base, but they'll need to sign a proven one-day race winner or a GC rider for the short term to teach these young riders how to win the big races.