Pinot and co. compensate for Tour with strong Vuelta showing
WorldTour ranking: 17th
Win count: 33
Top riders: Thibaut Pinot (33rd), Matthieu Ladagnous (67th), Arthur Vichot (76th)
Grade: C+. The team had a fine Vuelta a España, which almost lifted the squad to a B grade, but that was countered by a disappointing Tour de France.
Report card: The Tour de France has traditionally been the gauge of the success or otherwise of FDJ.fr’s seasons, and by that measure, 2013 was not a vintage year. A glimpse at the wider picture, however, shows that by season’s end, the glass was at least half-full thanks to its young roster’s achievements outside of July, the lowly WorldTour ranking of 17th notwithstanding.
After winning a stage, finishing in 10th place overall and installing himself on the front page of L’Équipe at the 2012 Tour, Thibaut Pinot lined up in 2013 with the hopes of an expectant nation on his shoulders, but the 23-year-old’s challenge was unravelled by the re-emergence of an old phobia of descending. Distanced on the way down the Pailhères on the opening mountain stage, Pinot lost over six minutes to Chris Froome and all hopes of a high overall finish, before abandoning the race through illness in the third week.
It would have been understandable had Pinot opted to knock his season on the head there and then, but instead the Frenchman returned to action for the Vuelta a España, where he held his nerve and his condition for three weeks to ride to an impressive seventh place overall. Pinot had earlier climbed with the best to finish eighth overall at the Volta a Catalunya and fourth at the Tour de Suisse in a season that – the Tour apart – had seen him show further signs of progress. His lack of victories will be a concern, although that is tempered by the fact that his programme comprised almost exclusively of WorldTour races.
Pinot was not the only one of FDJ.fr’s young guns to enjoy success at the Vuelta. Alexandre Geniez soloed to a fine mountain stage victory at Peyragudes, while Kenny Elissonde – who had already impressed at the Tour of Oman in February – held off Chris Horner’s late charge to take a gritty win atop the mighty Angliru.
Elsewhere, FDJ.fr’s two young sprinters picked up where they left off in 2012, with Nacer Bouhanni claiming 11 wins and Arnaud Démare picking up seven. Bouhanni clearly marked himself out as the number one sprinter by earning selection for both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour, and while he failed to pick up victories there, he did land WorldTour wins at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing.
After a fine 2012, Démare had a sluggish start to this season, but picked up momentum thanks to his morale-boosting domination of the Four Days of Dunkirk in May. He went to claim wins at the Tour de Suisse, RideLondon Classic and the Eneco Tour, but will look to increase both the quantity and quality of his wins in 2014.
Victory at the French championships was a fitting reward for another season of tempered aggression from Arthur Vichot, who is also continuing to mature at WorldTour level, where second place at the GP de Québec behind Robert Gesink was the pick of his results. The Spring Classics, however, were a disappointment for FDJ.fr, as Yoann Offredo fell short of his expectations.
What to expect in 2014: While FDJ.fr will want a vastly improved Tour de France showing in 2014, they are unlikely to alter their preparations for the race radically in order to do so. Manager Marc Madiot has made no secret of his desire for the team to be competitive in WorldTour races outside of the Tour de France, and 2013 was a qualified success in that regard, even if the final tally of seven WorldTour wins and the team’s final ranking of 17th are both far lower than he would have liked.
Thibaut Pinot spent part of the off-season behind the steering wheel of a rally car in a bid to conquer his fear of speed, but the lessons he learned this year in coping with the burden of expectation could prove equally important in the long run. The Frenchman will target results in week-long races such as the Volta a Catalunya early in the year to lift some of the pressure before the Tour. In July, much will depend on how Pinot copes when the road goes downhill, but he certainly has the climbing legs to ride to another top ten finish on the 2014 course.
Alexandre Geniez, Kenny Elissonde and Arnold Jeannesson are not at the same level as Pinot, but all three have shown their ability to make an impact in WorldTour races, and they provide FDJ.fr with a number of options across the calendar. Arthur Vichot is always a decent bet for a finisseur’s victory or two over the campaign, but it will be interesting to see if he can make a step up in quality in 2015.
The internal competition between sprinters Arnaud Démare and Nacer Bouhanni has spurred each man on to greater things, but the two youngsters have yet to open their accounts in the grand tours, and that will doubtless be a priority in 2014. In the cobbled classics, Yoann Offredo must surely be feeling the pressure. Long lauded for his potential, the 27-year-old made little impact last year and memories of his race-changing cameo at the 2011 Milan-San Remo are fading quickly.
Best signing: FDJ have long had one of the best recruitment policies in the peloton, and the news that 2010 junior world champion Olivier Le Gac will join the team at the end of next season was an inevitability given that the Breton was already combining racing and his studies thanks to the support of the FDJ foundation (previous alumni of the programme include Jérémy Roy and Yoann Offredo).
More surprising was the arrival of the man who succeeded Le Gac as junior world champion in 2011, Pierre-Henri Lecuisinier. After riding with Europcar’s feeder team Vendée U as an amateur, Lecuisinier looked set to make the step up to the pro ranks with Jean-René Bernaudeau’s outfit in 2014, only for FDJ to pounce and snap up the Frenchman.
Quick enough to sprint to Worlds victory on the flat Copenhagen course, and a strong enough climber to win the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard in 2012, Lecuisinier has a wide repertoire, and it is easy to understand Bernaudeau’s frustration at losing him. A winner of the Madiot Trophy race series as an under-16 in 2009 (he was second the previous year), however, Lecuisinier had already been on FDJ’s radar for quite some time…
Biggest loss: In recent seasons, FDJ’s ship has been carried by the rising tide of young French talent in the squad, but for many bleaker years in the middle of the last decade, it was up to Sandy Casar to fly the flag. Prematurely billed as a future Tour de France winner after his second place finish at the 2002 Paris-Nice, Casar never quite reached those heights (10th overall in 2009 would be his best finish), but he was a hugely consistent performer across all terrains for the next decade.
The highlights were Casar’s Tour de France stage victories in 2007 and 2010 (he was awarded another in 2009 after Mikel Astarloza’s positive test for EPO) and his 6th place overall finish at the 2006 Giro d’Italia. A string of niggling injuries forced Casar to hang up his bike this autumn at the age of 34, after 15 seasons with FDJ, and his wealth of experience will be missed from a team with an increasingly youthful leadership.
Man to watch: Now facing into his third year as a professional, Kenny Elissonde has enjoyed an smooth progression to date. Winner of the Ronde de l’Isard in his final year as an amateur, the Frenchman performed strongly at the Route du Sud as a neo-professional (4th overall) and then continued on his upward trajectory in 2013.
His year began with the white jersey at the Tour of Oman, where he was the best of the rest behind Froome, Rodriguez, Nibali et al on Green Mountain, but it was Elissonde’s ride at the Vuelta that garnered the most attention. Elissonde’s topped off a solid grand tour debut by edging away from Paolo Tiralongo and then fending off Chris Horner’s chase to win atop the Angliru. An increased diet of WorldTour stage races beckons for the 22-year-old in 2014.