By Jean-François Quénet in Adelaide
French outfit Ag2r has broken their habit of winning the Tour Down Under every three years, which they did with Gilles Maignan in 2000, Mikel Astarloza in 2003 and Simon Gerrans in 2006. After leading a Frenchman to the overall victory, then a Spaniard and an Australian, they now have found a Swiss rider in the person of Martin Elmiger, who was Vincent Lavenu's first pick when his former team Phonak collapsed.
"In France, we don't have many good riders for the classics and we had to strengthen our team for the one-day races", Lavenu explained. Ag2r shined in the 2006 Tour de France with Cyril Dessel and Christophe Moreau. Sharing this honor with the more prestigious CSC, Quick Step and Discovery Channel, they also were one of the only four teams winning a stage in every Grand Tour - with Tomas Vaitkus in the Giro, Sylvain Calzati in the Tour and José Luis Arrieta in the Vuelta.
They started the Tour Down Under with mixed feelings. On one hand, they were reduced to six riders with Stéphane Goubert staying in France after the death of his father and Carl Naibo realizing he had a major knee problem that forced him to pull out of the race quickly. On the other hand, they wanted to win again. "There were some pressure leading up to the Tour Down Under as defending champions", noted Gerrans who was pleased to see new signing Elmiger taking over the team's captaincy after finishing 2nd on stage 1.
"This was the perfect position, Gerrans recalled. We never had to defend the jersey at all. It was much smarter than last year when the guys had to do a lot of work for me. So it was still a preparation race for us although we were in an attacking position all the time. We didn't miss any breakaway and we had someone for the win every day. For Martin, there was no better way to start with a new team."
For Ludovic Turpin, it was a nice way to re-start. He made a break as well in stage 2, something he hadn't experienced for six months since he won the prestigious stage of the Izoard in the Dauphiné prior to crashing and breaking his femur the next day. Turpin has ridden the Tour Down Under five times and he has won three of them as a domestique!
As for Gerrans on a personal level, winning as a domestique was also a nice feeling after winning himself with all the responsibilities on his shoulders three Australian stage races in a row - two Herald Sun Tour and one Tour Down Under. "My form this week was good enough to help out but not for winning, he said. My first big goal of the year will be Paris-Nice in March. I'll start in Europe with GP La Marseillaise, maybe I won't contest the bunch sprint [he crashed and broke his collarbone at this race last year, ed.] this time but I'll be there. Then I'll do the Tour of the Mediterranean and the Tour du Haut-Var. I'm very happy with the program Ag2r has prepared for me again. It's my third year with the team and they have always given me a lot of confidence."
Instead of the every-three-years win in mind, Ag2r will return to Adelaide next year with the idea of winning three years in a row.
See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the 2007 Tour Down Under here.