When Ag2r Prevoyance were selected as the last Tour de France wild card, there was little controversy: they are regarded generally as a team on the cusp of the ProTour quality level, just lacking some bigger names. Still, they can boast erratic two-time stage winner Jean-Patrick Nazon in their largely-French lineup, and undoubtedly the man from Epinal is their best clear hope of a stage win, which is Ag2r’s attainable goal for this year’s race.
It remains to be seen whether they will be seriously outclassed by the ProTour opposition; it is the consensus that racing has been more gruelling as riders scrap for those precious competition points. Despite having lost influential leaders Kirsipuu and Brochard in the winter sales, the Ag2r riders will hopefully grit their teeth and apply themselves over the next three weeks to achieve a justified stage win, while also mixing it in some breakaways.
The Tour Team
Now that Jaan Kirsipuu has upped and left, Jean-Patrick Nazon remains the only notable sprinter in the team; this could be a blessing, as it will undoubtedly mean more cohesion for Nazon's cause. On the other hand, if the twenty-eight year olds keeps firing blanks in the sprints, team morale will go downhill faster than Paolo Savoldelli. Nazon has certainly been inconsistent this year, notching up just one victory, in a Bayern Rundfahrt stage. Otherwise, he’s only had two other podium finishes in bunch sprints.
Nonetheless, Nazon – who won in Wasquehal last year and, illustriously, on the Champs Elysees in 2003 – always seems to bring his top game to the top event in the world. A third stage win in three years is achievable, and a messy sprint finish would be particularly helpful to Nazon. When it comes down to it though, no matter how much good work helpers like Krivtsov and Dumoulin do in positioning him, it is all down to "JP" in the last 300m to produce a rocket of a sprint.
The smallest man in the peloton, Samuel Dumoulin, also has a solid sprint. However, he is much more aggressive on the road than out-and-out speedster Nazon, and this could result in a surprise victory if the pack allows a certain escape to stay away: we already saw that kind of performance at the Dauphiné, where he got in the break before outgunning three countrymen to win. Just don't make any jokes about his height...
The overall chances for this wild card team, unsurprisingly, aren’t very high; Stéphane Goubert has the best shot at a high finish, and his consistent performances at the Tour in past years are encouraging: he has finished in the top twenty twice in the last three years. While seemingly belying his age, as comfortably the old man of the team at 35, this could well be Goubert’s Tour swansong.
Instead, it could be another Frenchman - Sylvain Calzati - who takes over team leadership. Current Tour de l’Avenir winner Calzati finished fourth in the recent Route du Sud while still attaining top ten finishes in both the French national road race and time-trial. While a top twenty finish would be surprising, the twenty-six year old is, at least, not afraid to attack, and could be prime for a mountain stage breakaway.
As podofdonny noted in his excellent article about the growing number of Australians at the Tour, neo-pro Simon Gerrans has forced his way into the Tour team after several performances par excellence. The twenty-five year old - eligible for the Young Rider competiton, as is Dumoulin – won the attritional Tour du Finistere this year, while also putting in several other strong performances. Ag2r have bravely opted for youth over experience with Gerrans, and they will be hoping their faith will be richly repaid with attacks and public exposure. Whatever happens, he is undoubtedly an exciting prospect who could blossom in the coming years.
Another rider promising much is Mikel Astarloza, who always seems useful for an attack in the mountains. While he doesn’t seem to possess the day-in-day-out consistency required to finish well overall, the Spaniard finished twenty-ninth two years ago, and could well emerge with a similar performance, as he is a good climber.
Yuriy Krivtsov should be the team’s main hope for the time-trials: he was once considered a future star after taking third in the GP Nations as a neo-pro with Jean Delatour. However, since then, things haven’t quite panned out as the Ukrainian might have hoped, and he has stayed on the same level with second-rung French teams. While a top twenty prologue finish is possible, the twenty-six year old can also couple sprinting prowess with his ability against the clock: that should make him a man to watch out for in any breakway.
Nicolas Portal is also a solid time-trialist, though he should be more useful as a suicide-break attacker than anything else. GP Rennes winner Ludovic Turpin, while more experienced than Portal, should also be trying to get into the escape to trumpet the team sponsor.
Ag2r Prevoyance for the Tour
Mikel Astarloza (Spa) – 25
Sylvain Calzati (Fra) - 26
Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) - 24
Simon Gerrans (Aus) - 25
Stéphane Goubert (Fra) – 35
Yuriy Krivtsov (Ukr) - 26
Jean-Patrick Nazon (Fra) - 28
Nicolas Portal (Fra) - 26
Ludovic Turpin (Fra) – 30