There were smiles and fist bumps all round as the AG2R La Mondiale riders crossed the line at the Critérium du Dauphiné team time trial, and more than a little surprise. They had posted the fastest time and, as directeur sportif Julien Jurdie noted, "that doesn't usually happen to us."
Granted, there were still 11 teams still to come in, but by the time they had, the tentative excitement was proved entirely justified; AG2R had placed 7th out of 22, clocking 38:03 on the 35km course.
As team leader and Tour de France hopeful Romain Bardet acknowledged, it wasn't bad for 'a team of climbers', and not bad for a team of six, Alexis Vuillermoz having left the race after a crash on Monday.
Time trialling has always been the weakness in the Frenchman's armoury, and by extension, his team have always underwhelmed in these tests. Losing as much as 1:29 to Team Sky might have been slightly disappointing, but then again the British team wiped the floor with everyone else, and AG2R were within a minute of Quick-Step Floors, and 45 seconds of all but Team Sky and BMC Racing.
"For a team of climbers, that's a good performance. It was pretty homogenous. We were going very fast. We gave it what we had, and we rode with our hearts," Bardet told reporters at the finish in Louhans.
Bardet hasn't been coy about his ambitions of winning this year's Dauphiné, but Wednesday's stage wasn't just an important hurdle in the context of this week, but in the context of the whole summer, the whole season even. At the Tour de France he will encounter a team time trial of exactly the same length, and of a similar profile, on stage 3. Limiting his losses could have a big say in whether he can turn his podium finishes from the past two editions into a first overall victory for France since 1985.
"The conditions will be similar at the Tour in a month's time,” said Bardet. “We haven't done too much work specifically on the TTT, so it was important to take our marks for that. This was a very good step."
While many of his rivals are cautious about doing ‘too’ well at the Dauphiné given there’s still a month until the Tour, Bardet is treating the Dauphiné as a target in its own right and, with four back-to-back mountain stages coming up, all with summit finishes, he has plenty of fertile terrain in front of him.
“This time trial changes nothing. Sky did a very good time but they are the specialists – not us,” he said. "There are a lot of mountains coming up, and a lot that can happen.”
‘The hard work is paying off’
Like his riders, team manager Vincent Lavenu could hardly stifle his excitement.
"All the work we've done over the last weeks, months and years, today we have the impression that it's paying off,” he told reporters in Louhans.
AG2R La Mondiale may have a reputation as something of an ‘old-school’ team but they have become increasingly scientific in their approach in recent years, largely under the impetus of Bardet. Time trialling has been a part of that, especially since Factor replaced Focus as bike supplier ahead of the 2017 season and the team and Bardet were involved in the development of the brand’s first-ever TT bike.
“Since December we’ve been working on the team time trial,” said Lavenu. “For a long time, we have been doing work on time trialling in general, doing tests in the wind tunnel, testing equipment, working on many different elements. The improvements aren’t huge – we’re talking several seconds – but races are decided like that.
“Aerodynamics are very important, but also in a team time trial the spirit you work with is important, the guys being homogenous, enthusiastic, understanding each other, communicating.”
Before knowing Sky’s time, Lavenu was asked what sort of time gaps he would sign for on stage 3 of the Tour.
“I think, in the best case scenario, if we’re really good, then between 45 seconds and one minute. That’s on Sky, BMC, Quick-Step. If we do that, it’s good.”
That may prove optimistic, but AG2R will take confidence from Wednesday that they can limit the damage compared to previous years. They will also take confidence that the ‘team of climbers’ has more horsepower than it used to, and that Bardet can be shepherded through the rugged opening half of the Tour as safely as possible before being let loose in the mountains.
“We have a good set-up with guys like Tony Gallopin, who’s truly an all-terrain rider – that’s why we were so interested in signing him – with Silvan Dilier, a time trial specialist who’s not here but will be important for us, and with big engines in Oliver Naesen, Alexis Gougeard, and Pierre Latour,” said Lavenu.
“The Tour will be complicated this year, with nine very complicated days to complete before we get to the mountains, so we need to have riders for all elements.”
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