Vincent Lavenu has been managing teams at the Tour de France since 1993, but never has he known a year like this one. In twenty previous attempts under the respective banners of Chazal, Casino and Ag2r-La Mondiale, the team's best finish in Paris was Cyril Dessel's sixth place overall in 2006.
This time around, Lavenu's men have matched that achievement with Romain Bardet and bettered it with Jean-Christophe Péraud, who at 37-years-of-age, finished a remarkable second overall at the Tour. For good measure, the squad has claimed the team classification for the first time in its history.
"At 37-years'-of-age, we have to ask how much more he can progress, but it's still only his fifth year as a professional on the road," Lavenu said of Péraud. "He's gained serenity and confidence. Now he positions himself better in the peloton, he doesn't make useless efforts.
"He has above-normal physical qualities, truly exceptional. If he had started racing on the road sooner, who knows where he'd have ended up but he's really exceptional as it is."
Péraud’'s origin story is like few others in the professional peloton. A silver medallist as a mountain biker at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he alerted the world to his potential on the road the following year, when he upset Sylvain Chavanel to claim the French national time trial championships. Surprisingly, no French team was moved to take a punt on Péraud, and so the then 33-year-old went to Belgium in 2010 to make his belated professional debut on the road with Omega Pharma-Lotto.
"He always raced on the road on the amateur level and was even French champion. Then one year, he was French time trial champion as a professional, beating Sylvain Chavanel, and suddenly everybody was looking at him," Lavenu said.
"When he beat Chavanel, everybody was asking themselves, 'who is this mountain biker?' He wanted to go professional on the road, but he wanted to do half a season on the road and half a season of mountain biking, and he couldn't find a team in France."
Mountain bike to road
At Lotto, Péraud found in Marc Sergeant a manager broadly sympathetic to his style, but endured a more difficult rapport with the established stage racing leader Jurgen Van Den Broeck. Péraud finished 4th at the Tour of the Basque Country and 8th at Paris-Nice in his opening months with the team, but a season into his two-year deal, he negotiated a switch to Ag2r.
"It didn't go very well at Lotto, he wasn't very happy and he wanted to leave," Lavenu said. "I reached an agreement with Lotto and he came to us, and that was the beginning of this progression. He had enormous potential."
Péraud went on to finish 9th at his debut Tour in 2011, and the following year was allowed to ride both the Grande Boucle and the cross country mountain bike race at the London Olympics two weeks later. In 2013, a crash in the final time trial in Chorges denied him another top ten finish in Paris, but he returned this year aiming for a place in the top five.
Teammate Samuel Dumoulin has labelled Péraud as an atypical bike rider, and not just because of his mountain biking background. For instance, he qualified as an environmental engineer from INSA Lyon, the famous applied sciences institute, in 2004, before turning his attentions full-time to cycling.
"He has his character and I have mine," Péraud said of Dumoulin’s assessment. "We're all different, but I'm a normal man.
"I didn't have aspirations to be a professional when I was young. For me, cycling was more like a game because my parents had stressed that my studies were to be the priority."
Bardet and Betancur
As well as Péraud's podium finish, Ag2r-La Mondiale youngster Romain Bardet continue his progress on this Tour. Twelve months ago, he rode to 15th overall in his debut Tour, and enjoyed a fine opening to the 2014 campaign, with high fourth at the Volta a Catalunya, fifth at the Dauphiné and tenth place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Bardet arrived at the Tour with high expectations and was increasingly self-critical in his post-stage comments during a final week where the efforts of his season began to take their toll. After the summit finish at Hautacam and once again after the Perigueux time trial, where a puncture cost Bardet 5th overall by two scant seconds, Lavenu had to take his young charge aside and remind him of his own talent.
"Romain is a perfectionist. He always wants more, he always wants to do more, and that’'s the mark of a champion," Lavenu said. "He progresses every year. He was disappointed but it was our job to lift his spirits and remind him that he’s in the Tour de France."
Amid Ag2r's success story, it's remarkable to think that when Lavenu met the press at the Tour route presentation last October, most questions focused on the impact Carlos Betancur might have on a parcours that seemed suited to his explosive style.
Betancur duly began 2014 by winning Paris-Nice while some way above his racing weight, but he has recorded no results of note since. He travelled home to Colombia immediately after the classics and failed to return as planned ahead of the Tour de Suisse, eventually citing illness. As a consequence, he missed out on his Tour debut.
"I had an email two days ago saying that he had problems getting his visa from the French embassy and that they were trying the Spanish embassy instead, it’s seemingly easier for Colombians to get visas from Spain than from France," Lavenu said.
"He needs a tourist visa to come back to Europe. Then once he's in Europe, he needs to go to the police station to renew his working visa, which is a different thing. It's not very simple.”"
It remains to be seen whether Betancur remains at Ag2r-La Mondiale next season, but this July, at least, Lavenu has not missed his input. As well as Péraud and Bardet's high finishes, the squad captured a stage win through Blel Kadri and top spot in the team classification.
"We have always put emphasis on the team classification, because we like the values of teamwork and solidarity that it symbolises," he said. "We've been second and third in the past, so when we’'re presented on the Champs-Élysées as a team, it will be a great moment."
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