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Mt Hood Classic
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Road Season Preview 2004

France - Target: Le Tour

By Chris Henry

It is sometimes difficult to judge just how popular cycling remains in France, but with six Division I teams in the professional peloton, and many of the sport's biggest races held on French soil, the nation's investment in the sport is evident. Three Division III teams are also sponsored in France, including Crédit Agricole's development team, but the lack of Division II teams shows just how important a top ranking is for French sponsors, all of whom harbour hopes of selection for the Tour de France each year. The Tour is for almost any team the ultimate goal, but will always hold particular importance for local sponsors seeking maximum exposure in France.

World class team for 2004
Photo ©: Chris Henry/Cyclingnews

The biggest team in France is Cofidis, sponsored by a financial company offering credit to clients over the telephone. Cofidis has sponsored a team since the mid-1990s, and remains the highest ranked French team in the UCI standings. This year the team boasts a trio of world champions: Laurent Gané (track keirin and sprint), David Millar (road time trial) and Igor Astarloa (road race), who joined the team after several seasons at the Italian Saeco squad.

Cofidis has typically looked for big results in the classics and stage wins in the grand tours, and will do the same this season. Tour de France and Vuelta a España stage winner David Millar has often been thought of as a Tour contender, but knows that despite his natural talent he needs more time to develop. With the addition of Astarloa and Australian Stuart O'Grady for 2004, Cofidis has increased its options in the single day classics and World Cup events.

Cofidis' 2004 season has started under the cloud of a doping scandal involving soigneur Bogdan Madejak, rider Philippe Gaumont, and several former members of the team. Thus far the charges seem to point to individual rather than team-wide transgressions.

Brioches La Boulangère has dramatically reshaped the nature of its team with the signing of top Spanish stage race rider Joseba Beloki. With a reputation as a young, scrappy team with more ambitious riders than big team leaders, La Boulangère did not have a place among the contenders for the general classification in the Tour de France. Emerging talents like Sylvain Chavanel and Jérôme Pineau provided a perfect compliment to French national champion Didier Rous' experience.

With the arrival of Beloki, who crashed out of the 2003 Tour after in the midst of his most promising bid for victory to date, La Boulangère suddenly is poised to challenge not only for the podium, but even for the top honours in France's national tour. The team may not have the depth or experience in the grand tours as Beloki's former ONCE-Eroski squad, but ambition can go along way, something team director Jean-René Bernaudeau will count on come July.

Wilson the champ
Photo ©: Mark Gunter

Another young team, FDJeux.com, has shown in recent seasons that its riders are wise and talented beyond their years. Guided more and more by the tight-knit band of Australians, including Tour de France prologue winner and yellow jersey Brad McGee, final green jersey winner Baden Cooke, and recently crowned Australian national champion Matt Wilson, FDJeux.com has already amassed an impressive number of victories in the opening weeks of the 2004 season after a breakthrough year in 2003. This year the team has earned selection to the entire World Cup series, and Cooke and McGee make no secret of their own ambitions for victories in the biggest one day races.

Team director Marc Madiot, a former classics specialist, has placed a great emphasis on the development of young talent, and his efforts are already paying off with riders like Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, Sandy Casar, and Bernhard Eisel. Several neo-professionals join the FDJeux.com ranks this season, including Mark Renshaw, a gradute of Brad McGee's own development program in Australia, Sweden's Thomas Lövkvist, as well as Frenchmen Jérémy Roy and Fabien Sanchez. The team's veterans, Frédéric Guesdon, Jean-Cyril Robin, and Christophe Mengin, provide the experience necessary to guide the rough talent of the team's new recruits.

Kirsipuu, from the start
Photo ©: CN

Vincent Lavenu's Ag2r-Prévoyance team represents a steady progression to the top of the sport that began in the early 1990s as the Chazal team, then Casino, and now to the current sponsor. Somewhat typical of the French professional scene, Ag2r doesn't boast any one superstar, rather a number of hard-working and aggressive riders capabale of winning both one day races and in the grand tours. The team's stalwart is Estonian sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu, who with 111 victories to his name has spent his entire pro career with Lavenu, and repaid his team with consistent performances each season.

The stature of the team increased with the welcome of popular Frenchman and former world champion Laurent Brochard in 2003, providing a new leader who promptly took out a victory in the Critérium International and Paris-Camembert last spring. This year's big catch is young sprinter Jean-Patrick Nazon, who won the sprinter's top prize in 2003, the final Tour de France stage on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Andy Flickinger found his first big success at the GP Plouay last year, while young Irishman Mark Scanlon is beginning to confirm in the pro peloton after his first season with Ag2r in 2003. Neo-pro Lloyd Mondory is another name to watch in the coming seasons.

The Crédit Agricole team of Roger Legeay is another pillar in the French peloton, formerly sponsored by GAN in the 1990s. With some fairly big changes in the roster for 2004, CA will be looking for a season of rejuvination after a modest season last year. The biggest departures from the team were Stuart O'Grady and German Jens Voigt, who joined Team CSC, but Legeay has made a big push to fill the voids with a number of strong riders including Julian Dean, Bradley Wiggins, Alexandre Botcharov, and Damien Nazon.

Christophe Moreau remains the team's leader, particularly in shorter stage races and the Tour de France alike, where he has consistently ridden among the leaders but has yet to crack the final podium. Bad luck and injury have dogged Moreau in the past few seasons, but he will no doubt make another bid for a top place in the Tour this year, supported by climber Botcharov and all-rounder Patrice Halgand, who joins the team after several seasons with Jean Delatour. Julian Dean has shown increasing confidence in the bunch sprints, and victories have started to come his way. Norwegian Thor Hushovd will also continue his steady progression and increasing status as a green jersey contender in the Tour de France.

Rinero & Finot
Photo ©: Cyclingnews

Rounding out France's Division I teams is the new-look RAGT Semences-MG Rover team, which takes over where former title sponsor Jean Delatour left off. As doubts over the Jean Delatour team's future began to mount in the middle of 2003, many of the top's top riders jumped ship to secure new employers for this season. However once RAGT Semences, a French seed and agricultural company, joined with auto maker MG-Rover to take over sponsorship, team manager Serge Barle and his director Jean-Luc Jonrond were able to keep enough of the team intact to maintain Division I status.

Although down to a 17 man roster this year (Polish rider Marek Rutkiewicz was released from the team after his implication in the drug trafficking case of Cofidis soigneur Madejak), Jonrond hasn't lost any of his ambitions to earn another selection to the Tour and fight for stage wins. Multiple French national champion Eddy Seigneur will serve as road captain, along with former Tour de France king of the mountains Christophe Rinero. Riders like Frédéric Finot, Pierre Bourquenoud, and Guillaume Auger will look to take opportunities where they can, profiting from the team's underdog status. With RAGT Semences on board for at least three years, Jonrond expects to rebuild the team in the coming seasons and solidify the experience gained in the Jean Delatour years.

Three Division III teams fly the French flag this season: Auber 93 (formerly BigMat-Auber), Oktos-Saint Quentin, and the Crédit Agricole Espoirs development team. Auber 93 represents the remnants of the BigMat team, which was forced to drop to Division III after the title sponsor's withdrawal at the end of 2003. Oktos-Saint Quentin, on the other hand, is a strong team with more potential than it's Division III ranking would suggest, and the team has already proven itself in 2004 with a string of top places in the French season openers GP Marseillaise and Etoile de Bessèges with Saulius Ruskys from Lithuania and France's Sylvain Calzati, marking himself as a name to watch.