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Greg Van Avermaet's arrival marks new departure for AG2R in cobbled Classics

Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen in action at the 2019 BinckBank Tour. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The press releases landed within minutes of one another on Monday morning, and the centre of gravity of with AG2R La Mondiale - to be called AG2R-Citroën in 2021 – shifted accordingly. The departure of Romain Bardet to Team Sunweb is offset by the arrival of Greg Van Avermaet from CCC Team, but the Belgian is very obviously not a like-for-like replacement for a man who has twice placed on the podium of the Tour de France.

For a quarter of a century, the month of July has been the raison d’être of Vincent Lavenu’s squad. For 2021, the team’s emphasis looks set to move to April and the cobbled Classics, where Van Avermaet will join his friend and training partner Oliver Naesen. The duo that might receive further reinforcement in the coming days with Bob Jungels as a rumoured transfer target.

“I think we’ll have a lot of people around our bus at the start of the big Classics next year, maybe we’re going to rival Deceuninck-QuickStep,” Manager Vincent Lavenu smiled when speaking to reporters on a Zoom call on Tuesday.

Lavenu will hope, of course, that his revamped team will compete forcefully with Patrick Lefevere’s squad on the cobbles and hills of Flanders next spring, as well as in the hearts and minds of the race-going public. They certainly won’t lack for local knowledge: the 2021 roster already features five Belgian riders, with Lawrence Naesen and new signings Gijs Van Hoecke and Stan Dewulf joining the two leaders.

“I could make a joke and say it’s because the market for Citroën is strong in Belgium,” Lavenu said, when asked to explain the influx of Belgian talent. “But really, it’s because of Oliver Naesen, who is crucial to the team and charming to work with on a daily basis. We wanted to have a solid team around Oliver, because we know he has big ambitions. When the opportunity presented itself with Greg Van Avermaet, we seized it.”

CCC’s decision to leave cycling at the end of this season, not to mention the salary cuts imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, meant that Van Avermaet was on the market a year earlier than expected. After sounding out the Olympic champion’s agent, Lavenu then ran the idea past Naesen, offering him a veto on any transfer.

“If Oliver had said to me, ‘No, I’d prefer to be the lone leader,’ then I wouldn’t have proceeded but Oliver was very enthusiastic about the chance of riding with his mate,” said Lavenu, who signed Van Avermaet to a three-year contract, even though he turned 35 in May.

“I signed Greg for three years because I looked at his past, and he’s a rider who’s been in the top 10 in the world rankings every year for the last eight or nine years. That shows his consistency and his motivation. Like Philippe Gilbert, he performs very well despite his age. He’s very focused on his profession and he can be a very good influence for the young riders in our team.”

Jungels and BMC

The departure of Bardet and Pierre Latour, who will move to Total-Direct Energie next season, leaves AG2R-Citroën without an obvious leader for the Grand Tours in 2021, though Lavenu evinced confidence that his squad could still be “capable of putting a man in the top 10 at the Grand Tours. 

“We haven’t announced everything yet, we will have more announcements very soon,” Lavenu said. “I think we will have a team that will be solid in the stage races and the Grand Tours, too.”

AG2R-Citroën’s contender for the general classification at Grand Tours may prove to be another new arrival. In recent weeks, the team have been heavily linked with Bob Jungels, who is out of contract at Deceuninck-QuickStep. Winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuune in 2019, Jungels could form part of a formidable triumvirate on the cobbles with Van Avermaet and Naesen, but his resumé also includes two top 10 finishes at the Giro d’Italia and 11th at the 2018 Tour de France.

Earlier in the summer, Lefevere told Wielerflits that he “wasn’t going to lose his trousers” to retain Jungels’ services. Lavenu was more circumspect about the prospect of signing the 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, preferring neither to confirm nor deny his interest. He played a similarly straight bat when asked if BMC was set to take over from Eddy Merckx as AG2R’s bike supplier in 2021.

“I know there are a lot of rumours. There are rumours about BMC, there are rumours about Bob Jungels,” Lavenu said. “We’ll see if they are well founded or not. We’ll announce things at the required moment. We’ll confirm new arrivals shortly, maybe in the next week.”

Lavenu also paid tribute to the departing Bardet, who leads AG2R La Mondiale at this week’s Critérium du Dauphiné and at the forthcoming Tour de France. “We leave one another as good friends. Romain brought a lot to the team and I think the team brought a lot to Romain too,” he said. “This team existed before Romain Bardet and Pierre Latour, and it will exist for a long time after they leave. Now it’s up to us to construct the future in a positive way.”