The New Zealander was not without suitors when he came on the market at the tail end of last season, with Tinkoff among those to register interest, but ultimately he opted to take a road less travelled by Anglophone riders in recent years and sign for Vincent Lavenu’s squad.
The attraction of AG2R-La Mondiale was twofold, in that Lavenu’s eagerness to add the double Olympic medallist to his Classics roster manifested itself in the security of a two-year contract. For Sergent, who lost four months of 2015 when he broke his collarbone after a neutral service car drove into him at the Tour of Flanders, the value of a safety net in such a precarious occupation cannot be under-estimated.
“The two-year contract is a big draw compared to a one-year deal, especially with the changes possibly coming in next year for the number of riders on a team,” Sergent told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Qatar last week.
“I don’t know if they’re true or just rumours, but you do hear all these stories of teams having to get smaller, and this and that. Each year it seems tougher and tougher for getting contracts. If an accident like last year happened again it could easily be career over, so a two-year contract is a big draw.”
Not that Sergent’s decision was purely a question of security. Over five years at RadioShack and Trek, he seemed to recede into a supporting role. In theory at least, AG2R-La Mondiale should provide more opportunities for Sergent to chase results of his own in time trials and short stage races, while in the Classics unit, too, the hierarchy is not as strictly defined.
“It just felt like the team wanted me for me, and being a New Zealander they just wanted someone a bit different to make the team a little bit more international. So all those things were something I liked, and helped to make the decision,” said Sergent.
“I’ve got a Classics programme now for the moment, and at races like Tirreno-Adriatico, it will be about looking after the leaders. But then there are races where hopefully I can target some shorter time trials and prologues, stuff like that, and hopefully get a bit more time on my time trial bike. I’d like to prepare for those races, so hopefully there’ll be a bit of freedom in that respect.”
Unlike at Trek Factory Racing, where Sergent and everybody else served in the court of Fabian Cancellara during the cobbled Classics, the April hierarchy is less clearly defined at a AG2R-La Mondiale team where 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren and French duo Damien Gaudin and Sebastien Turgot all enjoy a degree of freedom.
“Having a rider like Fabian changes things a little bit, you really have a team goal, and his goal, and that’s good: I think those races are better when you go there with an actual job. You know what you have to do, you’re not just trying to follow wheels all day until the final,” Sergent said.
“This year will be different, I’m not really too sure how it will play out, but I’m guessing those three guys have their own freedom. I guess then I kind of fall into somewhere in between, and whether that ends up helping them or seeing how far I can go, I’m not really too sure.”
Tour de France and Olympics
The Tour of Qatar marked Sergent’s second outing with AG2R-La Mondiale, following the Tour Down Under last month. On the bike, the early burst of racing should bring Sergent up to speed quickly after his truncated 2014. “I’ve had more racing at the start of the year than in recent years, which I think is good because I need the racing really,” he said.
Off the bike, meanwhile, the nightly repartee around the dinner table will, eventually, do the same for his French after a two-month crash course at home during the New Zealand summer. “The only thing missing is my French really,” Sergent said. “I’m still a bit behind with that, but I figured that the racing stuff was the most important thing to learn first, so that’s definitely helped.”
Sergent will hope, too, that there are further opportunities to practice his French come July. The 27-year-old is still waiting to make his Tour de France debut, but his inclusion in Ag2r’s provisional long list is an encouraging step. “It’s definitely something that I want to do. The team’s put me on their longlist. It’s on my programme, or at least my programme gives me the opportunity – if I’m good enough, I’ll get selected to go,” he said.
Selection for the Olympic Games might prove somewhat more complicated. After claiming bronze medals in the team pursuit in Beijing and London, Sergent is keen to compete on the road in Rio, but New Zealand is likely to take up just one of its two allocated spots in August.
“The road race is definitely way too hard but the time trial is something I’d like to go for,” he said. “It depends a bit with the Tour and the selection. We’ve got two spots but it sounds like they’re only going to bring one rider.”