AG2R-La Mondiale have set about bolstering their Classics arsenal and have brought on board two six-foot Belgians to become more competitive in the spring, with Stijn Vandenbergh and Oliver Naesen both joining on two-year contracts.
Vandenbergh, now 32, spent a year with the Vincent Lavenu’s French squad in his second season as a pro back in 2008, but has spent the last five years at QuickStep. In that time he established himself as an important member of arguably the strongest Classics team in cycling, but never landed a one-day win of his own, with fourth at the 2014 Tour of Flanders, fourth at E3 Harelbeke the same year, second at Omloop Het Niuewsblad in 2013, and fourth at Gent-Wevelgem last season.
“A group geared towards the Classics is under construction and I’m happy to be a part of it. I know I can try my hand at certain races,” said Vandenbergh, who also acknowledged that his 6ft5in frame will be put at the disposal of others.
“After the spring, my job will be to protect the leaders in the stage races – I like that part of my job.”
As for Oliver Naesen, the 25-year-old has had something of a stuttering start to his career, having turned pro with Topsport in 2015 before moving up to WorldTour level with IAM last year. With the Swiss team folding at the end of the year, AG2R will be his third home in as many seasons but he hopes he can kick on after finishing 13th at this year's Paris-Roubaix.
“The Classics project attracted me and I’m happy to start this new chapter,” said Naesen. “I’ve just finished my first Tour de France and I hope that will allow me to reach the next level. In the future I dream of doing well at Paris-Roubaix. Contrary to the Tour of Flanders, where only a select group of riders have the wherewithal to win, the 'Hell of the North' is more open.”
The Belgian duo represent the second and third signings of the transfer window for AG2R, who brought in 23-year-old Rudy Barbier, another rider who they hope will develop in one-day races. They also handed two-year extensions to Mickaël Chérel, Axel Domont, Hubert Dupont, and Jan Bakelants on Tuesday.
In terms of the Classics restructuring, the new recruits were needed, with former Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren and Jesse Sergeant both retiring last month, while others such as Sébastien Turgot and Damien Gaudin are out of contract at the end of this year. Young talent Alexis Gougeard, meanwhile, who caught the eye at Omloop this year, is signed up through 2018.
“Oliver is a rider for the future who is highly regarded in the peloton. He has shown this year that he has the potential to shine in the Flandrien Classics,” said team manager Lavenu.
“Stijn is known for being a strong rouleur with an imposing physique. He’s capable of laying down a huge workload on the front of the peloton but can also play his card in the Classics. He is cut out for the cobbled Classics where he has already shone but we’ll also be able to count on him on the hazardous days in stage races, where he’ll be there to protect our leaders.”