AG2R La Mondiale
WorldTour ranking: 7th (Up five places from 2013)
Win count: 17 (Up from 8 in 2013)
Top riders: Jean-Christophe Péraud (10th), Romain Bardet (18th), Domenico Pozzovivo (27th)
For too many years the AG2R La Mondiale team's presence in the peloton has been about as exciting as their investment banker brown and blue kits, but in 2014 they rode as if clad in something considerably brighter.
The French team threw off the shackles of fighting to earn enough points to survive in the WorldTour and employed an assertive, if not aggressive, strategy that provided an impressive return on its investments of the past few years.
Jean-Christophe Péraud, the oldest member of the team but only in his sixth season on the road after switching from mountain biking, signaled that something was different for the AG2R team when he won the Mont Faron stage of the Tour Méditerranéen and placed second overall in February.
Although coming into the season noticeably heavier, Carlos Betancur defied gravity by claiming both the Tour du Haut Var and Paris-Nice, giving the squad its first WorldTour general classification victory since Christophe Moreau won the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in 2007. That was a pretty huge step for a team that has had single-digit totals in the win column for the past two years - and the season was still young.
The squad's up-and-coming climber Romain Bardet confirmed his promise with a strong second place finish on the key mountain stage in the Volta a Catalunya to Vallter 2000/Setcases. While he was out-kicked by Tejay van Garderen on the stage, Bardet notably came in ahead of Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome and went on to take fourth place overall.
Péraud again demonstrated his consistency with a solid third place finish in Vuelta al Pais Vasco, and although his climbing was not up to the standards of Contador on the opening stage, he time trialed his way onto the podium, dispatching Alejandro Valverde from second place perhaps foreshadowing the Tour de France.
Although Domenico Pozzovivo showed good form with second place in the Giro del Trentino, his Giro d'Italia podium hopes were scuttled by illness in the harsh-weather race, but he finished fifth overall - equalling the feat of Carlos Betancur a year earlier, and moving himself up from 10th the previous year. AG2R's first place in the teams classification was another bit of Tour de France foreshadowing.
The team's performance in the Tour de France proved to be a true turning point not only for AG2R La Mondiale, but for French cycling in general.
When Blel Kadri claimed AG2r's morale-boosting solo stage victory in Gerardmer, Bardet was the team's top man on the general classification, but manager Vincent Lavenu stuck to his guns on who was the team's leader for the general classification.
Péraud slowly clawed himself back into a podium position over the course of the second half of the race, finally jetting ahead of Alejandro Valverde on stage 18 to Hautacam and then surpassing the race's best young rider Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) in the time trial to secure the runner-up position behind the untouchable Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Bardet hung on to sixth overall, with the promise of more to come in future years.
Their results, along with their commanding victory in the team classification, secured another four years of sponsorship from the two investment and insurance firms, and gave more time for Lavenu to further develop his talented young riders, who will replace the 37-year-old Péraud over the next few years.
Best signing: The addition of Jan Bakelants will give the team more options for Grand Tour stage wins and short stage races. The Belgian is most famous for winning stage 2 of the 2013 Tour de France with a cagey solo attack that also earned him the maillot jaune for two days. He has also won a stage in the Critérium du Dauphiné and the GP de Wallonie. The addition of Johan Vansummeren will give the team more of a presence in the Classics.
Biggest loss: Lavenu has retained most of his top talent, only letting go of his top sprinter Yauheni Hutarovich, who heads to Bretagne - Séché Environnement, and Maxime Bouet who turned heads in the Dauphiné. The loss of Hutarovich might mean the team's win column might shrink somewhat, but if you can get on the podium in the Tour de France, does it matter if you win 15 instead of 17 races?
Man to watch: All eyes will be on Carlos Betancur, who flaked out on Lavenu this year and spent more time in his native country than following his prescribed race programme. A rider can't win Paris-Nice and then vanish for four months without being scrutinized, but Lavenu's light but firm approach will hopefully keep the Colombian on an upward trajectory rather than a downward spiral.
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