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Ag2r boss: Bardet can end France’s Tour drought

Romain Bardet, 26, is the top French rider to win a Tour de France title, a feat not accomplished since 1985.

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France has its best shot at a Tour de France victory in a generation with Romain Bardet. The 26-year-old rode to second last year, and his combination of ambition, intelligence, and panache has energized a nation that hasn’t seen a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

Ag2r – La Mondiale team boss Vincent Lavenu knows he has a jewel in his hands, and is cautious not to put too much pressure on his gem. Bardet has emerged as France’s best Tour hope in years, but Lavenu wants to protect him from the media pressures and fan expectations that come with his promising success.

The 61-year-old Lavenu has been in the game for decades and heads one of France’s longest-running teams. A former pro, the Frenchman has seen the highs and lows of the peloton, but believes the sport is in the best place it’s been in decades. VeloNews sat down with Lavenu at a recent team camp in Spain. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: With second in the Tour, is the goal now to win the Tour with Bardet?
Vincent Lavenu: Romain had a truly great Tour de France in 2016. The way he raced was very intelligent, he was patient, and he never stopped fighting, and he delivered a beautiful stage win and this podium that has filled the hearts of cycling fans. We cannot obsess with the Tour, and we cannot put that pressure on him. Yes, he is capable of winning the Tour, and that is important because it has been many years since a Frenchman had real chances. Now, will he win it? That’s another story.

VN: Is it too much to ask to try to beat Froome?
VL: When Froome is at the top of his game, he is hard to beat. If there is a long time trial, he will take minutes on everyone. Romain is right behind him, along with [Nairo] Quintana, [Thibaut] Pinot, and a few others. The top of the peloton is very competitive right now … behind Froome! Everyone knows that. Does that mean we throw up our hands and say it is impossible? Of course not.

VN: How does a team like yours, with a smaller budget, try to compete against Sky?
LV: Racing against Sky is a challenge. They have more money and more resources than the others. Is it fair? Well, it’s like in soccer. The big teams like Manchester or Real Madrid have the biggest budgets and can buy the best players. Cycling is different in that the race can deliver some surprises. We saw at the Vuelta that even Froome can be vulnerable in the right circumstances.

VN: Would it be a disappointment if Bardet cannot someday win the Tour?
VL: We will be satisfied with his result if he knows he has done the work and the correct preparation. The error is not approaching the Tour in the best possible way. If you do that, you can only measure yourself against your best personal result. That might be fifth, or that might be victory, or maybe it is ninth. What we cannot do is put that immense pressure on Romain. He is serious and he is doing his work in the right way, and that is enough for us. Romain has high ambitions, and we are here to support him. He is meticulous and intelligent, and pushes all of us to do our best. He is a rare rider than can lift an entire team.

VN: That philosophy seems at odds at the “win at any cost” mentality of many in cycling.
VL: Cycling is not all about money. It is not all about winning. I am not a businessman. First of all, I am a fan of cycling. I am passionate about cycling. On our team, we race for the thrill of competition, of doing things the right way, working in a team spirit. We strive for victories, but it is more important to do things in an ethical and correct way. The victories will come, and that is the ultimate goal, but we do not measure ourselves as successful or not based solely on victories. It is important to respect the rules, to work in an ethical way, and when we do win, the victories are even more special.

VN: It seems French cycling is on the comeback, with wins in monuments and podiums in grand tours. What’s behind the resurgence?
VL: Before we had a “complex” in French cycling. We suffered through many bad years, and I think French cycling lost its way. Now there are many young riders, like [Romain] Bardet, [Julian] Alaphilippe, Pinot, many others, who have come up in a different generation and are unburdened by the past, who are now at the highest level of the sport. There has been a renewal from the bottom up. French cycling invested in youth and at the grassroots level, and now that is paying off with this new generation.

VN: Is there still a suspicion of a peloton at “a deux vitesses” that many in French cycling pointed out?
VL: The peloton has truly changed. It has been on a good path a very long time now. The public might have the image that the peloton is still doping, but that is not true. Now there is an equality of chances of victory in the peloton that was unseen a generation ago. That is the most important change in the past 10-15 years, and some people simply do not see it or choose not to accept it. Today, it is possible to be a big champion in cycling without doping, and this is very important to understand.