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Ag2r-Citroën sponsor moves puts pinch on the unproven and unlucky

Budget boost brings influx of new stars to French squad, leaving existing riders facing career crises or contemplating retirement.

Sometimes, it’s not always a good thing when your team gets a big budget boost.

At least, that’s the case for a handful of riders at Ag2r-La Mondiale, set to be known as Ag2r-Citroën in 2021. With a swathe of big-money stars joining the squad next season, riders at either end of the experience spectrum have been pushed out and left scrambling for new deals to save their careers.

“Ag2r got a big budget increase this year and so they’ve gone and bought loads of big new riders,” Harry Tanfield told VeloNews this week. “They’ve cleared out those that they don’t have space for anymore – and I was one they didn’t want.”

Tanfield, 26, had joined Ag2r-La Mondiale at the start of this season for his second year in the WorldTour. Next year, he will be riding with British third-tier squad Ribble-Weldtite.

It’s not just the young Brit that was squeezed out to make room for a bumper roster refresh at the French squad in 2021. Greg Van Avermaet, Bob Jungels, Michael Schär and Ben O’Connor headline a host of new talents joining the squad thanks to a cash injection from new sponsor Citroën.

Veteran cobbles-crusher Stijn Vandenbergh is one of three riders retiring after their contracts with Ag2r-La Mondiale expired at the end of this season. Vandenbergh may be 36, but was hoping to have another ride in his cherished cobbled races after a disappointing classics campaign this fall.

The other two retirees, Clément Chevrier and Axel Domont, are far from retirement age at 28 and 30 respectively.

“In 2021 Van Avermaet, [Stan] Dewulf and Schär will join, so the classic core is full,” Vandenbergh said earlier this month. “Team manager Vincent Lavenu said that he already had too many Belgians and that there was no room for me. I would have liked to race one more spring, to give everything until Roubaix and then stop.”

Vandenbergh had been left scrambling for a new contract to open the doorway to another classics season, but finally pulled the pin and confirmed his retirement Friday. His search had been in vain.

Vandenbergh’s long career of crushing cobbles racing comes to a close one year earlier than he had hoped. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Five others in the 2020 Ag2r lineup have stepped down to second-tier ProTeam squads after their contracts with the WorldTour outfit came to a close this fall.

The dynamics in the stalwart French team makes for a case study of the dynamics of a transfer market turned upside down by the financial fallout of COVID-19, where teams are left as either “haves” or “have nots.”

Earlier this year, Jim Ochowicz’s long grasp on a WorldTour license was finally loosened after a sponsor crisis led to a buyout by Circus-Wanty Gobert. In the last week, NTT Pro Cycling was narrowly saved from collapse by a cash injection from the Swiss apparel brand Assos, though will ride out 2021 as Qhubeka Assos with one of the lowest budgets in the WorldTour.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the likes of Ag2r, Ineos Grenadiers and Israel Start-Up Nation have been splashing the cash of their big-budget sponsors and benefactors.

“They’ve got the cash, so they can buy big,” said Warbasse of Ag2r-La Mondiale, whose signing of Olympic champ van Avermaet marks a whole new focus in the squad.

With the market squeezed to the brink as riders flood on to the market – website ProCyclingStats currently lists 54 WorldTour pros currently with no deal for 2021 – riders of all ages and abilities are forced into either stepping down one or more tiers, or hanging up the wheels for good.

“I started speaking to teams around the back end of September time, and it was quite apparent straight away that a lot of teams were quite full and teams weren’t really taking on many guys,” Tanfield said. “If they were, they were just taking one or two, or they were just renewing most of the squad that that had.”

Tanfield received several offers from teams in Asia and the UK before opting for British squad Ribble-Weldtite.

“I’ve known the guys behind Ribble for a while, so they’re pretty good and want to help me get back to where I was before,” he said. “So, that’s their goal as well and we’re hoping to share success along the way.”

Tanfield returns to racing in the UK next year, but hopes to bounce back up to the WorldTour soon. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Tanfield is already plotting a return to the WorldTour thanks to his good-terms relationship with his new squad. Having had no opportunity to ride for his own ambitions during his 2019 with Katusha-Alpecin and Ag2r, the time trial and track specialist is relishing the opportunity to target the victories that will catapult him back to the top-tier of the sport.

Vandenbergh, however, now has a long retirement ahead of him and is still uncertain what he’s going to do about it.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Vandenbergh told Het Laatste Nieuws on Friday. “I give myself six months to a year to think about it.”

While Michigan-born Warbasse has a further two years inked in with Ag2r-Citroën, several other Americans are out of contract or stepping away from the WorldTour in 2021.

Sean Bennett’s deal with EF Pro Cycling expires this winter and his next steps have not yet been confirmed. Earlier this month, Ben King and Joey Rosskopf both joined Rally Cycling having left the struggling NTT Pro Cycling and shuttering CCC-Team respectively, trading a step to ProTeam level for the job security and satisfaction of riding with home squads.

It’s been a tough season throughout the pro peloton, and riders have been left making decisions they may not have envisaged 12 months ago.

“You can sit around and cry about it, retire and get off your bike, or get on with it and move on,” Tanfield said.

Some 50 other WorldTour athletes are still faced with that very same dilemma.