2014 Report Card: Europcar

Season of near misses

WorldTour ranking: 18th (new to WT in 2014)
Win count: 11 (down 15 from 26 in 2013)
Top riders: Pierre Rolland (36th), Cyril Gautier (60th), Romain Sicard (108th) 

When it comes to no-shows and hissy fits in cycling, Thomas Voeckler's failure to climb off the Europcar team bus and attend the podium ceremonies at the finish of Paris-Tours this October was surely one of the highest profile of them all in 2014. But both for Voeckler - and probably for Europcar in general in 2014 - Voecker's finishing a narrowly beaten second in Paris-Tours must have felt like one frustrating near-miss too many.

Even if Voeckler's post-race behaviour was widely criticised, and it cost him 200 Swiss Francs and nearly 3,000 Euros in lost prize money in fines, too, Voeckler's refusal to stand alongside Paris-Tours winner Jelle Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) was perhaps understandable.

Following a day-long break and one of the hardest fought and most exciting Classics of 2014 - why Paris-Tours is not in the World Tour remains a depressingly unfathomable mystery - the Europcar leader had just missed out on what would have been his first victory of 2014. Not only that, Paris-Tours would also have been Europcar's first major win of the season.

Instead Paris-Tours became Voeckler's second big defeat of 2014 - after he had already dropped the ball on stage 16 of the Tour de France. On the descent to Luchon that day a finger-wagging Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) made it clear what he thought of Voeckler's and Europcar's tactics - and then shot off to win the stage anyway. That Voeckler had triumphed in the Tour's previous two visits to the same Pyrenean town in 2012 and 2010 can only have rubbed even more salt into the wound.

But in fact near-misses like Voeckler's in the Tour de France and Paris-Tours have been part and parcel of a generally down-beat and lowkey race narrative for Europcar in 2014. Their win count this season plummeted to 11, none of them World Tour, after 26 victories in 2013. As a member of Jean-Rene Bernadeau's squad since he turned pro in 2001, Voeckler's personal lack of success has been a major factor in that downward spiral in the results, too: this is the first time since 2002, he has not won at least two races in any of his seasons.

Even some of Europcar's limited highpoints, like Jimmy Engoulvent's spectacular victory

in the final, rainsoaked, stage of the Four Days of Dunkirk, served indirectly as a reminder of the team's past success and the current lack of it. Engoulvent might have triumphed on the day, for example, but he had failed to repeat his 2012 overall victory in Dunkirk, one of France's top non-WorldTour stage races.

Equally, Pierre Rolland's fourth place in the Giro d'Italia was a personal Grand Tour best for the under-rated Frenchman. But coming so close to a first ever Grand Tour podium for Bernadeau's team was Rolland's well-deserved reward for overall consistency, rather than a consequence of his offering a serious challenge to Nairo Quintana and co. As such, his result did not garner the media attention it perhaps deserved.

The Tour, where Rolland failure - just - to break into the top ten overall was another similar story. Elventh in the final gc, the man from Orleans' second top Grand Tour result in three months was largely overlooked, in any case, as France fizzed with excitement at the country's double podium finish with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2R).

There were some impressive wins, too, but none of them in the WorldTour, where Europcar finished a clear last of all the squads. 185 points down on 17th-placed Cannondale. Eritrea's Nathanial Berhane fended off a rampaging Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural) to capture the overall in the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, for example, then Cyril Gautier claimed a stage of the Tour du Limousin and Coquard was all but unstoppable in the Etoile de Besseges bunch sprints.

But none of these really suggested Europcar's return to the WorldTour was a resounding success. Bjorn Thurau's victory in the mountains classification of the Tour de Suisse could not be knocked, either, but again, it was one of the very few occasions when Europcar managed to impact at WorldTour level.

Europcar cannot be criticised too harshly, though, given they have one of the smallest budgets - if not the smallest - in the WorldTour, and 2014 was their first year in cycling's top league since 2010. Faced with an expanded team of 25 riders and a much more demanding race program such as their first Giro in five years, other teams in similar circumstances and with much greater financial firepower have also struggled to adapt.

2014 can be looked on, then, as a year of transtion. But with their sponsorship running out at the end of 2015, next year will be a much more telling test of strength. And given there are virtually no changes to their line-up, Europcar will be crossing their fingers their riders' greater familiarity with the WorldTour calendar will yield much greater benefits than in 2014.

What to expect in 2015: With Europcar's sponsorship concluding, the team surely need to step up their game to capture a new backer. Young sprinter Bryan Coquard will be one key name Europcar hope will feature strongly throughout the year, albeit initially kitted out in French national colours in the Track World Championships next February in Paris. (For the record, Coquard will not be taking part in the Omnium, where he was a silver medallist in London 2012, focussing instead on the Madison and other endurance events.)

This may shift Coquard away from his most successful hunting ground of 2014, the French early season, but given he will be a year older and stronger, Europcar may well find him bigger challenges in 2015 in any case.

Despite his strong showing in the 2014 Giro, Rolland will be initially be flying under the radar at the Tour, given the plethora of top ten finishes for the French last year - and that may well be to his advantage. One of the most aggressive riders in the peloton, the 28-year-old's love of attacking has done the former Alpe d'Huez stage winner no harm in the past. A higher placing than his current best in the Tour, eighth in 2012, is surely on the cards.

After his dearth of 2014 triumphs, Voeckler will be itching to take a win of some kind, even if at 35, the end of his professional road is now almost in sight. Given Coquard will be focussing initially on the track and Rolland perhaps aiming mainly for the Tour, Europcar may well expect the French veteran to hit the ground running in 2015, too.

Best signing: Europcar's only signings are three neos from their Vendée U feeder squad: 20-year-old 2014 Omnium World Champion Thomas Boudat, whose first goal will be to defend his title on home soil in the 2015 Track World's. Julien Mourice, a skilled time triallist, and all-rounder Guillaume Thevenot, bronze in France's U-23 Nationals this year, complete the new additions. Rumours that Owain Doull, one of Wales most talented young track racers, will be joining Europcar have yet to be confirmed.

Biggest loss: After four years with the team, Kevin Reza's departure to FDJ.fr sees Europcar lose one of their most solid allrounders and a fast finisher. FDJ, as a result, have gained a rider who is a strong one-day racer in hilly Classics and who will act as a great lead-out man for Arnaud Demare and team worker for Thibaut Pinot, too. Thurau quitting for Pro Continental German team Bora-Argon, though, will lose Europcar a valuable mountain rider, too.

Davide Malacarne's departure for Astana may bolster the Italian contingent in the Kazakh squad for Classics and Grand Tours, but he did not have a huge impact on Europcar during his three years there.

Man to watch: The hirsute Dan Craven's signing for Europcar last summer caused a small spate of somewhat superficial newspaper reports on the latest bearded rider to make it into the WorldTour. Hopefully now Craven has settled in to his new team, there will be a re-focus in the media on what one of Africa's top racers is capable of doing at WorldTour level, with or without beacoup de facial hair.

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