By Hedwig Kröner
French ProTour team Ag2r Prévoyance experienced a strange 2006 season. One could say that it was the squad's most victorious year, as manager Vincent Lavenu's riders scored wins at all three Grand Tours; but at the same time the season turned sour when it reached its climax at the Tour de France.
At the end of 2005, Lavenu hired one of Spain's most gifted stage racers - Francisco Mancebo - to make sure the squad would be given ProTour status, which was granted. The team started the season successfully by taking wins as soon as January at the Tour Down Under with Simon Gerrans. Then, Cyril Dessel took over at the Tour Méditerranéen, Tomas Vaitkus won a stage at the Giro d'Italia, and everything looked set for the year's highlight, the Tour de France. But in June last year, Mancebo was one of the riders that got entangled in the Operation Puerto affair, and therefore was suspended indefinitely by his team. A long phase of legal battles began...
Nevertheless, Ag2r continued to perform. Sylvain Calzati won a stage at the Tour, and teammate Dessel rode himself into the yellow jersey for a day, and up the general classification, where he fought for his seventh placing with bravery. Oldie but goldie Christophe Moreau, a regular candidate for best-placed French rider in the Grande Boucle, also achieved a top-10 result, just one down behind Dessel.
All in all, Ag2r achieved 18 victories in 2006, and it intends to continue this year - even without the support of a big name rider such as Mancebo, who accepted to leave the team only in December last year in return for a substantial redemption. "Today, we have a clear conscience," commented Yvon Breton, Ag2r insurances' Secretary General and head of communications, at the team's 2007 presentation which took place in Paris on Monday, January 22. "We fulfilled our ethical engagements, and that, really, is priceless."
Still, a bitter aftertaste from the Mancebo intermezzo remained. "Our sport has lost its orientations," Manager Lavenu told L'Equipe. We don't know anymore which riders or results are credible. They told me that I should have known [about Mancebo, who for Lavenu is clearly guilty of doping - ed.], that signing a global cycling leader meant being exposed to this risk. But where is the limit? The top-10 of the Tour? The top-20?"
But looking back on 2006, Lavenu has no regrets. "What happened with Mancebo is a lesson," he added. "We proved that we could achieve something very respectable without a guy like him." With Cyril Dessel, Christophe Moreau, Sylvain Calzati, Samuel Dumoulin and Simon Gerrans, the team has kept many of its promises, even if Tomas Vaitkus decided to continue his career in the ranks of Discovery Channel.
The 2007 team counts 27 riders, of which there are six newcomers, including the experienced Martin Elmiger (former Phonak) and Italian Rinaldo Nocentini, intended to do well in the Classics. Elmiger already took it up where they had left it last year by winning the Tour Down Under for the team, helped by Gerrans.
"The team is composed of talented riders, different and complementary," said Lavenu. Christophe Moreau, instead of targeting a top-10 placing at the Tour, wants to go after the polka-dot jersey of best climber, and Dessel is expected to confirm his stage race talents. "You want to feel these great moments of intense emotion again," said Dessel, "but I know it's going to be hard."
In the mountains of the Tour, the team is also looking forward to see more of John Gadret, who already showed enormous potential at last year's Giro. For the sprints, Lavenu counts on Alexandre Usau and Jean-Patrick Nazon amongst others. Strong allrounders like Ludovic Turpin, Samuel Dumoulin or the above mentioned Sylvain Calzati will be given the liberties of following their instincts. Three neo-pros have also been signed to complete the roster.
The full 2007 rider roster reads as follows:
José Luis Arrieta (Spa), Sylvain Calzati (Fra), Philip Deignan (Irl), Cyril Dessel (Fra), Renaud Dion (Fra), Samuel Dumoulin (Fra), Hubert Dupont (Fra), Martin Elmiger (Swi, Phonak Hearing Systems), John Gadret (Fra), Simon Gerrans (Aus), Stéphane Goubert (Fra), Yuriy Krivtsov (Ukr), Julien Loubet (Fra), Rene Mandri (Est, Auber 93), Laurent Mangel (Fra), Loyd Mondory (Fra), Christophe Moreau (Fra), Carl Naibo (Fra), David Navas (Spa), Jean-Patrick Nazon (Fra), Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita, Acqua & Sapone), Stéphane Poulhiès (Fra, Elite 2), Christophe Riblon (Fra), Nicolas Rousseau (Fra, Elite 2), Blaise Sonnery (Fra, Elite 2), Ludovic Turpin (Fra) and Alexandre Usov (Blr).
Also see Cyclingnews' riders database.