Decathlon-Ag2r La Mondiale’s Strong Start

Decathlon-Ag2r La Mondiale directeur sportif Julien Jurdie has got a tattoo to mark wins by his riders and at the rate things are going right now he could soon be mistaken for a yakuza. What’s behind all these wins? It’s been a recurrent question of late and here are a decathlon of attempted answers…

The team is on 23 wins at the moment, only UAE and Lidl-Trek have more and on the UCI points scale, they are second this year behind UAE and so kicking sand in the faces of Ineos, Soudal-Quickstep and Visma-LAB… for now at least.

The chart shows the number of wins per season. 1999 was something special but you can see more recently how the team has had single digit years. A good or bad year can depend on your reference point. As it happens the average rate for a World Tour team in the last few years is, excluding 2020’s abbreviated season, 25 wins per year.

They’d have wanted more wins along the way but it’s also been partly by design, the glory days of wins with house sprinter Jan Kirsipuu ended and they focused on stage racing. Having Jean-Christophe Péraud and Romain Bardet on the podium of the Tour de France didn’t boost the win rate but they were massive triumphs for a modest budget team.

2024 is very different with 24 wins so already. Plus there is depth too, they have over 10,000 UCI points so far this season when they won 9,000 last year. So what’s behind it?

1. Signings
The roster changed over the winter but the new signings haven’t been so prolific. Victory Lafay has yet to race as he nurses a knee injury. Bruno Armirail came close yesterday in the Dauphiné but no wins. But Sam Bennett does fit the turnaround story with his four wins and the GC at the Four Days of Dunkerque, these results have lifted the team above Quickstep and Visma for wins so far.

2. Management and logistics
The team management had a sit down last winter because the previous season was so bad. They started asking more questions about what was needed and made some internal changes to management and resource allocation. This is hardly “magic formula” stuff but it has helped. Team founder Vincent Lavenu is taking a back seat with retirement looming. There’s more focus on nutrition to help the riders. Logistics have been improved which sounds dull but if bikes and team vehicles turn up for a training camp or a race then the team staff can focus on tactics.

3. Calendar choices
One angle here was prioritising riders for certain races. You might remember Benoît Cosnefroy dancing with his friends on the Joux Plane last summer… because he did not do much else that Tour despite all his talent, the scenes were fun but got team management annoyed. Grand tours are not his thing and so he’s being spared them, if he does the Vuelta it’ll be partly for training. Instead he’s been focussing on other races and perhaps thanks to this found winning ways again. Ben O’Connor going to the Giro was another part of this, especially as he was supported by a strong team that took two stage wins.

4. Luck
Sport teams depend in part on luck. There’s a lot of academic literature on this for other sports. A team or athlete can have a stock of talent but the ball can bounce one way or the other; a star player can slip on a banana skin while on a shopping trip and be out for months. Management or athletes might try to claim success is due to their unique talent but there is always a degree of fortune here; to borrow from Napoleon you probably want “lucky generals”. Teams tend to perform to their ability but they can have lucky times and unlucky ones too. In this sense is Cosnefroy winning again this spring a result of the management decisions over winter and focus; or just because he’s a talented rider who has won races in the spring before? Probably both.

5. Unluck
Talking of luck, the team doesn’t race in isolation. Rival teams are struggling. Arkéa-B&B’s new signings Arnaud Démare and Florian Sénéchal were injured and ill this spring when if they were 100% there’s a good chance they might have won a race that Decathlon won.

Likewise Groupama-FDJ’s house sprinter Paul Penhoët, the youngest ever winner of the Coupe de France series last year, looked set to build but required knee surgery in December and has missed much of the season.

6. Joly good
L’Equipe does a good monthly podcast on cycling and some of the feedback they got was the recruitment of Sébastien Joly as a sports director is working out very well. Formerly of Groupama-FDJ, he’s said to bring a sharper focus on winning rather than placing and putting in place clear tactics to deliver the win.

7. Youth growing up
At the other end of the age range the team is bringing on young riders, it always has. But a crop of riders like Paul Lapeira, Valentin Retailleau and Valentin Paret-Peintre have grown up in the team’s feeder system and are now winning with the World Tour team. This pipeline looks set to continue thanks to the establishment of their in-house Continental development team which can act as bridge between the team’s impressive junior squad.

8. Van Rysel RCR Pro
The new bike is a factor. Professional cyclists are conditioned to flatter their sponsors so there is the “they would say that, wouldn’t they” aspect. But there are still some angles to explore here but riders are often equally quick not to oversell this, after all if it was the bike then prospective employers on other teams could be put off. It’s said the previous BMC model was a bit long in the tooth. The new Van Rysel frame could well be an aero improvement. Plus the combo of the new bike and wheels could work well. If this also feels faster then the placebo effect is worth it. It makes for a nice story too given Colnagos are sold in showrooms, Pinarello even has a bottega and Specialized a marketing behemoth while Decathlon is basically a sports kit supermarket now selling World Tour bikes out of retail warehouses although still for €9,000 and there are cheaper World Tour team-issue machines.

9. Hassle-free bikes
The other unseen angle of the bike from Decathlon is that it is delivered as a package. For several seasons the team had issues with their bikes, loyal readers will remember the look at the team’s accounts which showed unpaid debts from past suppliers and retained bikes on the balance sheet. Both Ridley/Merckx and Factor didn’t work out. Plus if the team got frames, they were at times left scratching for other sponsors and suppliers. Now the bikes all come in one box, work as a system for mechanics and management can spend time on other tasks rather than literally shopping for parts.

10. Budget
Talk of Decathlon’s arrival also allows us to evoke another reason: the budget increase. Decathlon is now the lead title sponsor and putting in more funding than Ag2r La Mondiale; a year ago Ag2r paid more than Citroën. This financial leapfrog isn’t felt immediately in the budget but one hypothesis is that riders know there is budget for next year and beyond and good results now, especially in the first half of the year can mean renewals and extensions.

Decathlon-Ag2r La Mondiale are having a great time, they’ve scored more UCI points in 2024 than all of 2023 and they have more wins this year than the past two seasons combined, including double the amount of World Tour wins this year than last.

What’s the secret of success? Abandoning the brown shorts? Nobody really knows, there are several factors at play, ten above is plenty. Riders and staff are talking of reorganisation and management improvements more than the new bike so this internal issue has its backing and we should pay attention. But hypotheses are listed above and hiring Sam Bennett has helped, we’ve seen the blooming of young talent, the extra cash from Decathlon must be an incentive… and plain old luck going their way.

What if Bruno Armirail being caught on the line yesterday marks the changing point? So far so good but would the team sign for the season so far if meant a Tour de France without success? In recent years they’ve had lean times but enjoyed box office blockbuster wins in the Tour de France thanks to Ben O’Connor, Bob Jungels and Felix Gall which has gone a long way to defining their season, and keeping Julien Jurdie’s tattooist busy.

27 thoughts on “Decathlon-Ag2r La Mondiale’s Strong Start”

  1. One other factor I’ve considered in D-AG2R’s recent success is that winning reduces the fear of losing. You can see it often (until recently, this always seemed to be an aspect of Quickstep’s success) – once a team gets on a roll, their riders start making moves and taking chances in races. They become unburdened by the fear of failure whilst others retain that millstone

  2. A minor complaint:
    I don’t think the average number of wins per team (3rd paragraph) is a good measure because in the end it reduces to N_races/N_teams. It would just tell us whether the team is taking more or less than their fair share of wins. I believe a median could be a better measure to tell if a team is performing well compared to others.

  3. You touch upon it in the article, but their recruitment strategy & race focus in the Citroen years must have had some contribution to a few years of declining wins – they spent a lot of money on riders to compete in the biggest classics, but unfortunately ended up with a number of riders in decline who delivered little in way of results – Van Avermaet, Naesen x2, Jungels etc…
    Now they’ve reverted back to a focus on developing younger riders, and have spread their focus more intelligently (eg Cosnefroy avoiding GTs), and with it has come more success.

  4. Point 1 – things as they are today – is rather moot.

    Nobody would be talking about Decathlon-Ag2R sudden bloom of multiple victories if it was just for Bennett dominating a honestly rather mediocre edition of Dunkerque – if anything, he could have been expected to deliver some heavier wins, or at least to collect the same amount of wins also through other minor races as Provence or Loire… but even in a state-of-grace team, he still looks like just another former-quick(stepper)-sprinter.
    In fact, take away his five wins and the team would *still* be on its highest tally of victories in two decades or so, barring only 2015 – and we’re only halfway through the season.

    Those who really impressed were Lapeira, and Valentin Paret-Peintre, plus Godon, all them already on the roster for different seasons now – while O’Connor, Vendrame or Cosnefroy rather did “their thing” although on the sparkling side of their range. So, point 7, indeed, while Godon like Cosnefroy were more about 3 & 6, i.e. focussing on victories and how to get them.

    No, I wouldn’t name at all “transfers” among the really relevant factors… unless we think about “getting rid” of a handful of senators who retired and used to race a lot but didn’t do much about victories. Winning isn’t everything, of course.

    Obviously, factor 4 can be considered as a big one as in sooo many of their guys coming good all together. Or is that about number 10?

      • Would you really have been writing such a piece if Decathlon Ag2R was now, say, on some still good 9-10 victories, i.e., take the very same as last year at this point, or 2022’s or 2021’s FWIW, plus add those “five” (in a single barely visible race) from Bennett… only one of the others being a WT race, by the way?

        I strongly doubt so. It would be no news at all.
        Among other things, because it would have been a season not unlike 2019 or 2018, really not that far back, so a good recovery story for the team after a lacklustre lustrum, but nothing to especially catch the eye.

        OTOH, as I showed above, you can perfectly take away all Bennett’s victories from their 2024 season untik now, and you’d still have a screaming winning streak which would have bloggers and fans watch in wonder.

        That sort of double mental experiment shows quite well why that point 1 is really *not-relevant* although “5 wins” might look a lot at first sight. But it’s a lot which doesn’t matter in this context, and wouldn’t have mattered to shift perspectives on the last couple of seasons (or 3), either.

        Note that I’m not even weighing victories (which would strengthen my point), just counting them.

  5. I recall hearing Larry Warbasse on The Cycling Podcast some time back describe that in past years, the team would hesitate to commit all of their resources to one single goal at a race, on the grounds that if you don’t achieve that one goal, you risk coming away with nothing. From what Larry said, they recognized this is a flawed approach and have moved much more towards having a single goal at each race and making sure all of the pieces are oriented towards that one goal. Which may well be the influence of Mr Joly from point 6 above?

    (FWIW, I always enjoy hearing the Motown Maestro give his thoughts on TCP.)

    • My recollection is Larry credits the culture change to “chips all in” is a result of Joly’s addition to the squad.

      Plus he mentions someone from world rally car racing that is now in management?

  6. If they succeed in keeping their Junior & conti talents, they could be one of the biggest teams in the coming years… but of course it depends on how much is bringing Decathlon. Probably we won’t know it for sure before 2025, when the accounts of 2024 will be out, if I remember well everything I read on this blog about finances…

  7. Find it rather myopic to not cite what an actual team member has said, Larry Warbasse, “the team now races for one guy to win or podium,” and not a bunch of free agents all racing for results.

    Anybody who races knows how results robbing that former strategy is.

  8. A pity with the kit though. The variants of the one shown with Nibali and the Citroën-AG2R were great designs. Now it’s just bland. Better to win in a stylish kit methinks!

    Again thanks for the content, inrng. Always a learning pleasure.

    • One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Many people’s thoughts on the brown shorts could be summed as “look like shit, ride like shit”.

  9. On point No. 8, Which other world tour bikes are cheaper. Cube perhaps? All prices seem over inflated now, even Canyon’s which were once good value with direct to consumer model.

  10. “The new bike is a factor. Professional cyclists are conditioned to flatter their sponsors so there is the “they would say that, wouldn’t they” aspect. ”
    The marketing mythology that never dies. Can we expect Roglic to now get spanked regularly now that he’s no longer riding a bike with CERVELO stickers on it? Uh, wait-a-minute…his current bike has the same sticker as the guy currently leading Criterium du Dauphine. And both of ’em crash too maybe those bikes are no good? Legs/lungs/smarts win races….last time I checked none of it was sold in bike shops or by online merchants.

    • Apparently it is indeed so that these days one brand´s bike model can in no way, not even by chance, be better,m faster, more comfortable, more anything than any other manufacturer´s top model. Yet back in the day when bike frames were made of steel and men were made of iron, there were riders who were happier with a bike other than the brand that was printed on the stickers?

      I have to agree with you that I wouldn´t suddenly start winning races if I went and bought a Van Rysel, but I can assure you that when I switched from one brand´s upper middle class bike to another brand´s equivalent, I not only felt but actually did better, i.e. I was no longer dead last on my club rides when we sprinted and that it took longer before I was dropped on our non-social rides.

      Anyway: if Van Rysel is a factor, it doesn´t follow that Specialized must be slower or leave the riders feeling less strong in the final than Cervelo 🙂

      • I wouldn’t be surprised if this specific iteration of the Van Rysel was worth well over its price and technically excellent well beyond what would be normally profitable to produce.

        Dunno if it’s the case but it would be a typical strategy for this kind of huuuge mass market retailers, creating a product to legitimate their brand and draw new clients in, then people soon discover (or not, i.e., maybe they don’t become aware of what follows) that such a product obviously not sustainable in itself in market terms is a one-off of sort, beside its quality not being proportional at all through the whole range of products offered, even less so… through time when new versions of the product do appear. Especially in the case of objects whose quality isn’t obvious, it’s an easy game to play… and those MMR brands do it a lot in sports, furniture, clothes, food, whatever.

      • On a whole different note, re: what you commented about your personal experience, more often than not nowadays a lot is about finding the brand and model whose geometry fits you. One or two decades ago, sizes went up or down one or two cms at a time, now it’s XS, S, M, L, XL, so maybe a specific model just won’t have the right fit for you (no matter how you adjust contact points, the frame will react differently).

        And of course the bike makes a (small) difference, which matters *at pro level*. But it must also be said that the current bike market is so conformist, the main brands selling literally the same (from the same makers, too), that such a difference becomes often too small to be seen. Well, some bikes do break without crashing, and that’s not good for a pro or anybody else, but apparently those paid to ride them happily cash in and go on.

      • You confuse a good bike with one made-to-measure. A bike that fits properly certainly can (and I believe does) make a difference but trying to explain that with a switch from one maker’s t-shirt sized bikes to another makes no sense, unless the team changed to made-to-measure bikes from a “builder of trust” painted up in team livery vs the off-the-rack ones they used before? But you’d be hard-pressed to get anyone to admit such a thing!!!

        • You are super fast to assume what I confuse with what :- ) Made-to-measure isn´t an entirely new concept to me. What I can´t get my head around is why, in the era of steel frames, the team brand couldn´t manufacture a bike made-to-measure, if another manufacturer could.

          One can always believe that there is a level of artisanship that can make one of two quite similar bikes, built of the same tubes to the same measures, better than the other…

          …but I´m not sure that we aren´t talking about mythology that is essentially no different from the marketing mythology you have observed?

          • My guess is you simply haven’t looked into it? Cycling history is colorfully filled with stories about artisan builders whose names may never have appeared on the bikes they made.
            Start with Colnago, DeRosa and Masi for some who made their own brand names, then move on to those who didn’t like Pella, Valsassina, etc. Reading some of this history really makes you realize what’s been lost in the era of molded plastic bicycles made in Asia. My most treasured frames are those made by men whose hands I could shake, even if their names’ might not always be on the decal. Some were made-to-measure, some simply off-the-rack.

          • Your guess is rather obnoxious, but not entirely unexpected. it would´ve been nicer, if you´d tried to answer my monstrously uneducated question.

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