A team reborn: Inside Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale’s Jebel Jais genius

It was a masterclass from the French team on the first mountain top finish of the 2024 UAE Tour and it comes after an off-season of big changes

New bikes, new wheels, new sponsors and no more brown shorts – Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale is a team barely recognisable in 2024. You would be forgiven for not having the French WorldTour outfit as your prediction for who could outwit the home favourites of UAE Team Emirates in the first mountain top finish of this year’s UAE Tour, especially after the Emirati team dominated yesterday’s individual time trial. On the sandy, sun drenched mountain of Jebel Jais, however, Ben O’Connor proved that smart tactics, self-belief and cohesion can elevate a team beyond all expectations.

The signs were already there early on in today’s stage when the peloton began to splinter on the wide, exposed roads on the way to Jebel Jais. While some climbers struggled in the howling crosswinds, Decathlon AG2R were present and correct at the front of the bunch, as drilled the likes of Soudal-Quick Step and UAE Team Emirates in their own right. 

“It was not chilled at the start and it was in a section we didn’t expect,” Valentin Paret-Peintre commented after the stage, reflecting on his team’s performance in the echelons. “We were a bit surprised but we were there with the best teams. We rode like the best teams at the start of the season, when there are things like [crosswinds] happening, we are there.”

Once the peloton regrouped after a frantic section of echelons and the roads started to kick up towards the looming summit of Jebel Jais, Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale once again held their own as one of the most promising teams of the season. Their performance stood out for its uniqueness – it was Sam Bennett, the team’s de facto pure sprinter, who did the first turn at the foot of the climb for his team, a rarity for a man known to thrive in flat, fast conditions. Bennett is certainly proving himself to be a reimagined fast man this season with his performances today in both the crosswinds and the mountains, and his willingness to help his teammates is a sign of a healthy morale within Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale.

“That was his role today, it wasn’t taxing for him and he was there in the echelons before which was a harder effort than pulling on the climb. You always give back at some point and on the first stage [a sprint stage] I tried to look after him as best I could,” O’Connor said after the stage about his Irish teammate.

The attitude of giving and taking within the team appears to be crucial to Decathlon AG2R’s early season success. It was Paret-Peintre who set up O’Connor’s winning attack perfectly with just under one kilometre to go on Jebel Jais, launching a lead-out for the Australian rider at the exact moment when UAE Team Emirates’ Jay Vine glanced in the wrong direction.

“On the last kilometres, Ben said: you can go now. I went slowly and he said, no, go full, so I went full,” a visibly elated Paret-Peintre gushed after O’Connor’s stage win. “I don’t have words. I think it was one of my most beautiful days on the bike.”

The Frenchman’s happiness for his teammate's success is a result of the bond that O’Connor says has been built up throughout this winter within the group. Impressive cohesion between the team was already evident a few weeks ago at the Vuelta Murcia, a one-day race in which O’Connor took an impressive solo victory. It was the same approach of a clear plan and plenty of communication between the team that got them victory today ahead of UAE Team Emirates, who, in contrast, started with multiple leaders and tactics that appeared confused in the most crucial part of the race. 

“I think [the year so far with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale] has been great. My first race in Murcia we were excellent and we had three in the front group at the end which teed me up to go with Tim Wellens [who instigated the eventual winning move in Murcia],” O’Connor said after his Jebel Jais win.

“Here, we didn’t have the best luck in the first sprint stage with Sam, but it was a double effort looking after me and Sam. I think having him here is really good, he’s got a tonne of experience, he’s won races all over the world. It’s nice to race with a sprinter, I've never had that before and they have a different mentality for how you float around the bunch. I think in general, the mentality is really good, we all get along here and we’re all mates. I think the team atmosphere has stepped up this year.”

It’s not just personnel within the team that have changed for AG2R in 2024. To the surprise of many, Decathlon has come on board as a new title sponsor, and along with that the team are riding Van Rysel bikes – the first time the brand has been seen in the professional peloton. Among the riders, there is huge enthusiasm surrounding the new bike and appreciation for the investment that Van Rysel has made in ensuring that its equipment excels the standards required by a WorldTour team, sending engineers to training camps and taking on board rider feedback.

“It’s a new dynamic for us. Last year was not so good and we changed a lot this winter with new sponsors, new wheels, new bikes,” Paret-Peintre commented. “We are happy with this and we feel the bike is really fast.”

It’s fair to say that the French team’s opening to the season is the perfect advertisement for Van Rysel and the brand will be extremely happy with the return on investment so far in 2024. When Paret-Peintre and O’Connor launched their spectacular two-up attack on Jebel Jais, their speed and strength on the new bikes was unmatched.

“It was worth a shot and something I never really thought I was going to be able to do. It was worth the gamble, if I’m going to get beaten in the sprint I have to go earlier,” O’Connor smiled after the stage. “Valentin was super impressive and he really forced that gap, I just had to hold on.”

It’s a well-known saying that success breeds success, and such a strong run of results has inevitably given Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale a huge boost in confidence. While just yesterday all talk was of UAE Team Emirates dominating this year’s UAE Tour, O’Connor’s assault of Jebel Jais has changed everything. Suddenly, Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale has the potential to cause an upset at this race and Ben O’Connor appears an extremely motivated man ahead of the finale on Jebel Hafeet in three days time. 

“I’m here to win races. I don’t want to be a GC guy who doesn’t win. It’s nice to throw caution to the wind and to get another win after last year I didn’t get one,” O’Connor said after the race. “Jebel Hafeet should suit me a lot more than today’s climb. I’m pretty hopeful.”

As has proven crucial to the Australian rider’s success, O’Connor’s teammates will be backing him every step of the way for the rest of this week, too.

“The objective is to win the GC,” Paret-Peintre said confidently atop Jebel Jais. “Ben is in really good form and the last climb of the last day of this race will be his best.”

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