By Jean-François Quénet in Pau
AG2R was one of the most devastated teams at the start of the Tour de France in Strasbourg, but they are now over the moon as they are leading the team competition as well as the overall classification and king of the Mountains competition with Cyril Dessel. After Sylvain Calzati's stage win in Lorient, they are also full of hope for a top three finish with Christophe Moreau in Paris.
One year ago, AG2R was an invited team at the Tour de France, much as Agritubel is this year. As they were trying to enter the Pro Tour, they did their best to attract top riders. "For a while we hoped to get Alexandre Vinokourov back," team manager Vincent Lavenu explained. "He had won big races with us, like the Dauphiné at the time of the Casino-AG2R team. Maybe he had too big ambitions when he thought that Liberty Seguros would be more helpful than us for him to win the Tour de France, but we can't blame him."
Lavenu made it clear with Moreau that there would be another leader. It became Francisco Mancebo instead of Vino, but the whole project fell through prior to the start of the Tour. Two days before, the Spaniard didn't hesitate one moment before signing a piece of paper stating that he had nothing to do with 'Operation Puerto'. Then he rode flat out while training with his teammates. He gave them an explanation: "This is the last time of my life that I hurt my legs on a bike." He knew it was all over. Since he returned to Spain, he has reconsidered pulling out of cycling for good, but either way his future will not be with AG2R.
"Some riders weren't too motivated at the start," Lavenu recalls. "It has taken a lot of work to put the team back together thanks to the friendship between the guys." AG2R might have a long history with riders from the former Eastern bloc, they're now composed of some Spaniards and one Australian (Simon Gerrans), but they're a local team from the Rhône-Alpes region, born in 1992 under the name of Chazal-Vanille et Mûre. Lavenu hails from Chambéry in the Alps, where the team is based. Dessel and Calzati are from Lyon, as is Samuel Dumoulin whose girlfriend Magalie Lavenu (Vincent's daughter) is the team's press officer. "There's a family atmosphere here", Gerrans realized last year.
"Having the yellow jersey in the Tour de France brings a lot of happiness, it's so rare in a team," said Lavenu. However this isn't the first time he's been in this position as Jaan Kirsipuu led the race for six days in 1999. It also gives confidence once more to the French cyclists, who can see they're able to influence the race. "We'll try to defend it intelligently. We've got resources for the mountains. We hope this situation will help Moreau on GC as well. We all know that Moreau has the potential for a top 10, but with the top 5 riders from last year all missing, it's reasonable to believe that he can make a top 5. So our goal is to place him on the final podium in Paris. He has time trialled better than in the Dauphiné; if he climbs just as well as in the Dauphiné, the top three is something realistic."