Bonjour mediocrity

Ag2r collective

“We’d fixed the goal of finishing between twelfth and fourteenth place and we’re right on cue because we finished thirteenth! The result on the day was rather satisfying”

That’s Ag2r-La Mondiale’s team manager Vincent Lavenu speaking after yesterday’s team time trial. Homer, not the ancient Greek but the Simpson, said the secret to happiness was low expectations so their must be smiles all round with Ag2r yesterday. Aiming for 12th-14th spot, the team hit the mark for sure. In fairness, the team does not have many rouleurs and the goal was realistic rather than romantic.

But it’s not the first time the team expresses modest ambitions. Speaking ahead of the Tour, team boss Vincent Lavenu said:

This year Ag2r must aim for a rider in the top-10 of the overall classification. Of course, like all teams on the race, a stage win is also the least we can aim for. However, it’s clear that not everyone will get this, especially if we consider the teams with sprinters and big leaders.

I don’t to pick on Ag2r alone but the team makes the point for me, that the Tour de France is probably the only race of the year where a top-10 finish is goal before a race. The exposure to be gained by a rider high on the overall classification can be enormous, even if they never get the money-shot imagery of their rider on the podium or crossing the finish line with arms aloft. Indeed a rider can finish, say, 15th a few times on a few the mountain stages and by virtue of consistency they’ll crack the top-10 come Paris.

Big result
A high finish in the Tour de France is enormous. Few can achieve this result and – park talk of doping for a minute – it is highly respectable and I’m not looking to diminish this. After all it places the rider in the elite of the elite. Many would give their left arm for such a result, although clever donors would arrange for the transaction to conclude after the post-Tour criterium season.

But all the same, I can’t help feel a bit wistful with this. I’d rather see a rider capable of the top-10 go for a stage win, even if it backfires and they lose a few places on GC. Many viewers will feel like this too, indeed French TV producers love le spectacle because watching a rider “defend” ninth place just isn’t as compelling when it comes to the ratings.

But for the rider and the team, the incentives are very different. They’ll get daily coverage from the media, especially from their home country reporters and this is what they crave. For the rider the result is indicative of potential, maybe they can go better the next year or they can take wins in other races. As a result a newcomer to the top-10 can see a big pay boost, quite easily adding a zero on their salary.

I feel a bit bad citing Ag2r’s modest ambitions twice but they quotes jumped out at me, the arguments are just as applicable to many other teams. Fans and riders have opposing incentives and objectives, what is good for one isn’t always good for the other.

Viewers want to see riders on the rampage one minute and quite possibly falling apart the next. Yet riders want to minimise this volatility, to control their racing and deliver a steady result. It’s not necessarily negative racing but it can be very conservative. I was pleased to see Jurgen Van Den Broeck win a stage of the Dauphiné as it was his first big win after a string of high overall positions but no win.

Above all this kind of riding can be quite prevalent in the Tour de France because the media coverage is that bit bigger, meaning results overlooked in other stage races can gain big publicity here.

12 thoughts on “Bonjour mediocrity”

  1. There isn’t really much a team can do tactically or strategically in a TTT. Either you have riders who are good at it, and they are well drilled, or you do not. It’s a type of stage peculiarly unsuited to big ambitions and really, Ag2r seem to have taken a sensible approach. They don’t have the riders to compete at all in this discipline, so they concentrate on limiting losses. That’s what every team outside of the big 5 or 6 TTT teams was doing, Ag2r were just more honest and up front about it than most.

    I agree with you about the riding for placings part. I don’t like it at all. However, commercial reality dictates that coming, say, 7th overall is worth more to a rider than winning a stage or winning most smaller stage races. It changes a career. This irritating situation has been exacerbated by the Lance era “The Tour is the only race that counts” publicity juggernaut. If the Tour is treated as vastly more important than other races, it’s no wonder that defending your seventh place becomes the goal.

  2. It definitely seems more common in bigger stage races for riders pretty much all up and down the field to say things like “I just tried to minimise my losses” – I’m sure I’ve heard even podium finishers in le Tour say that golden gem… About the only person I haven’t heard it from (before yesterday) was Alberto – traditionally because he’s the one causing everybody else to say it!

    It is nice to see the shoe on the other foot for a change though – with that, and Cadel being disappointed about not winning a ‘sprint’ stage, this is turning into a very interesting Tour!

    (ps: this could be the Tour’s ‘classic’ year, much like the Giro was in 2010)

  3. Two things you should look at before criticizing Ag2r or any other French team for that matter: (1) the size of their budget in relation to that of other more ‘ambitious’ teams, and (2) the fact that doping is a crime in France with heavy punishments unlike other the countries of many of the aforementioned ‘more ambitious’ teams. And sorry I did not ‘park the talk about doping’ but discussing a team’s value, results and ambitions in relation to that of others w/o mentioning doping, firstly participates in a culture of denial that is only too pervasive in and around cycling and secondly, it makes the whole evaluative process meaningless. A quick look at the nationality of recent winners of the Tour de France and their countries’ stance on doping should solve the matter. Emphasis on should, needles to say…

  4. Well, Oliver, the country of recent winners of the Tour de France is Spain, that indeed criminalized doping activities a few years ago, and that organised the Puerto investigation.

  5. I agree with you about the TTT and the more general point about the Tour being ‘too big’ and leading to risk aversion. As you point out in the comments, Ag2r is just one of many teams and countless riders who may play it safer than they would in a smaller race. The comparison with the Giro is valid.

    The Giro’s racing is typically more interesting. You don’t see many GC riders dropping back to save themselves and keeping something in reserve: the main contenders know that they have to go ‘all out’ to stand a chance. It’s worth mentioning that there are other factors that influence this (the Giro course is tougher, with more summit finishes, longer transfers, more unpredictable weather and the teams have less strength in depth) but the only the Italians seemed over-awed by the Giro this year.

    To echo GluteCramp’s comments, this year’s Tour is shaping up to be a corker. All the ingredients are there. While it may not be 100% drug-free, we can debate the dirtier aspects as and when they come to light. Rumours are just that.

  6. And on racing for placings, I think Inner Ring is right. Although for example Sean Kelly’s 4th place in 1984 does add a lot to his generally impressive palmarès, I like riders to race for victory. Someone as overly aggressive and determined as Hinault is painfully missing in today’s cycling. But the amount of pressure on Contador and Schleck is increasing so much, that the chances of seeing an all-out battle somewhere in the Pyrenees are seriously increasing. 🙂

  7. Completely agree with this post, nice one INRNG… 🙂

    Has surprised me so far that Saur-Sojasun hasn’t had anyone in the break during Stages 1 or 3. Given they are a minor team with little prospect of stage or jersey wins, I thought they’d ‘repay’ the organisers (and their sponsors) by getting themselves noticed in the early stages…

  8. C Grade Cyclist: Saur-Sojasun are there thanks to Jérôme Coppel, a possible top-10 candidate himself. They’re less a band of opportunists, more focussed on him. But still, it’s a matter of time until they appear. Britanny is the “home” region of the team too.

  9. I see your point. Trying to put my self in the place of the directors of the team. The teams economical situation is very much dependent on press coverage (sponsors etc.). Setting out ambitious expectations, will give good press, but not fullfilling them will get bad press, and dissapoint fans maybe.

    They don’t want the joutnalists asking: “what went wrong?”. They want them to ask: “How did you manage to pull that off?”.

    Just my guess.

  10. At the end of each Tour, AG2R commission a marketing study to evaluate how much their team’s participation in the Tour was worth to the company. In 2009 when Nocentini spent a week in yellow and finished 13th on GC was evaluated at Euros 60 million worth of advertising. Not a bad return on AG2R’s investment.

  11. If they expend themselves contesting for a higher placing they can risk blowing finishing this thing altogether. Then there is no exposure whatsoever. This is a long hard slog that asking “why wouldn’t they just go a little harder there” underappreciates.

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