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Pivot to classics is only temporary for Ag2r-La Mondiale

Veteran manager Vincent Lavenu isn't giving up on yellow jersey quest despite signings of Greg Van Avermaet and Bob Jungels for 2021.

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When French grand tour stalwart Ag2r-La Mondiale announced it will be pivoting to the spring classics in 2021, everyone reacted with a collective, “Huh?”

With the arrival of new co-sponsor Citroën for next season, it seemed like a very odd move for the long-running French team to turn its back on its eternal quest for the yellow jersey. After all, it had come closer than it ever had to Tour de France glory with podiums thanks to Jean-Christophe Péraud and Romain Bardet. Plus, it’s never won one of cycling’s cherished monuments during a franchise history that dates back to the early 1990s.

But that’s exactly what’s happening in 2021. The team jettisoned Bardet and promising GC rider Pierre Latouror had them hired away by rival teams — and signed on a platoon of cobble-bashers for next season.

With the arrival of Greg Van Avermaet, Bob Jungels, and Micky Schär, there’s no doubt where the team’s ambitions will lie in 2021.

In fact, Lavenu enthusiastically supported Bardet’s high-profile move to Sunweb on a two-year deal. Bardet evidently had second thoughts about the wisdom of his imminent switch when the COVID-19 pandemic swept Europe. Like most of the other French teams, Lavenu’s outfit is on solid financial footing, and there were no wage reductions in 2020. At 30, Bardet believed a new challenge that will help kick-start his stalled GC trajectory is paramount to any financial risks.

Also exiting Lavenu’s crew are three equally important core riders, including Latour, Alexis Vuillermoz, and Alexandre Geniez, who all move to crosstown rival Team Total Direct Énergie. That French team plans to stay in cycling’s second division, but the trio of Ag2r alumni will help assure its annual wild-card invitation to the Tour de France.

With the flurry of moves, everyone wondered if longtime boss Vincent Lavenu was hitting the absinthe in the off-season, but he insists his newfound classics focus is part of a larger plan.

Lavenu promises the pivot to cycling’s monuments is only temporary, and he vows to rebuild the team’s Tour de France ambitions from the ground up with a younger fleet of promising GC riders.

“We are moving toward the classics in 2021 but it is a transition year,” Lavenu told French media. “We are not talking about changing the culture of our team. We are looking forward to the team’s future ‘post-Bardet,’ and it is a fascinating challenge. We will not refrain from returning to the grand tours in a big way. We have young riders with superb climbing qualities. Our strength and our DNA has always been training. The proof of that is Romain.”

Van Avermaet and Co. will link up with the team’s current classics squad, anchored by Oliver Naesen and Silvan Dillier. The team has seen a string of recent monument success — the Swiss rider was second to Peter Sagan in the 2018 Paris-Roubaix, Bardet was third in the 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Naesen was second in the 2019 Milano-Sanremo — and Lavenu is set on winning one of them once and for all.

The team’s classics emphasis has always been there. It’s just “going to 11” in 2021.