Van Rysel: ‘AG2R keep on winning not just because they are riding our bikes, but it helps’

The former French underdogs are ahead of the pack in 2024 – their new sponsors are adamant it’s a breakaway that will stick and which will benefit us all

“This year is a very important year thanks to what’s happening with the team – it’s beyond expectation. We are in the top two WorldTour teams. A few months ago AG2R were 18th. Obviously it’s not only because of the bike but it helps a lot. It changes the mindset. When you feel super confident having such a bike it helps you see things differently. There’s a new mission in the team.”

Van Rysel’s chief marketing officer, Maxime Delabre, is a happy man. Since Van Rysel took over from BMC as AG2R La Mondiale’s bike sponsor and its parent company Decathlon took over as headline sponsor things could hardly have gone better. The team have scored 23 wins in the WorldTour as of mid-June, are second in the UCI team rankings behind UAE Emirates and one place above Ineos Grenadiers. They won the teams classification at the Giro d’Italia plus two stages and just missed the podium with Ben O’Connor fourth on GC. They wore special pink socks to celebrate winning the team prize. It was a performance that prompted Sean Kelly to observe in his Eurosport commentary: “Sometimes when a team starts winning, everybody gets that morale boost and that certainly seems to be the case for Decathlon-AG2R and it just seems to go on and on getting better and better.”

AG2R win the teams classification at the Giro d'Italia

Van Rysel/Decathlon are already doing well out of the deal too. Delabre confirms that the team’s success with the Van Rysel RCR Pro bike – which has received an unprecedented amount of media attention as ‘the world’s cheapest WorldTour bike’ – is already reflected in Van Rysel’s sales (despite the relatively low price). When I visited the vast B’Twin Village in Lille, where Van Rysel is headquartered, I asked him what sort of return on investment was expected from the sponsorship. “As you’ve seen, it’s a multiple-entry partnership. First with Van Rysel, another related to Decathlon [as the headline sponsor]. There are different objectives and different ROI expectations. What I can say is that obviously what’s happening with Van Rysel’s current sales is already starting to prove that it delivers. We see there is way more media attention, way more cyclists are asking questions and focusing on what we are doing. You can see that rapidly through the social networks but more importantly we see that through the media. There are more articles that are looking at what we are doing and that can help us to direct sales. There’s more traffic, more followers and more sales.”

B'Twin Village

Van Rysel has existed as a Decathlon brand since 2019 and in that time has worked hard to try to establish itself as a separate entity. The first Van Rysel concept store opened in London in April, with more to follow in Europe and possibly China. But how separate is it really from Decathlon? “It is a completely new line,” answers Delabre. “We haven’t rebranded anything as Van Rysel. Our engineers are exclusively working on Van Rysel products. We share some facilities and expertise with other [Decathlon] brands. For example we have the 3D printed design facility that’s only working for us: they have their own engineers so we team up together, ours and theirs, to create the frame to work on for us.”

Within B’Twin Village is the capability to 3D print whole bike frames, and this was key to the very fast development of the Van Rysel RCR Pro and of the race bikes that will follow it. In other words, although Van Rysel has its own identity, it can harness the power of Decathlon, which designs and produces almost every item of sports equipment imaginable. “We are already the only cycling brand in the world offering bikes, clothing, accessories and electronics and home trainers. All the categories,” Delabre points out. “Our ambition is high – we want to be in the top five cycling brands in the world. Our objective is to design products for every level of cyclist. And to do that there’s two ways. We start with the most demanding, the pros, and we extend that to everyone. To achieve that our engineers join forces with world leaders in their own industries such as ONERA [Office National d’Études et de Recherches Aérospatiales], with whom we worked on the RCR Pro. We wanted their expertise in aerodynamics and it was huge to learn from them. We did the same with Swiss Side on the time trial bike [as used in the Giro, due to be launched imminently]. We work as much as possible with external partners to go further and faster. It’s a marketing tool, but we’re also doing it to develop the next generation of our products. Right now some of our team are working with Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale riders to make them test the next generation of the bikes and some more. It’s a daily relationship that we have with them.”

Van Rysel RCR Pro AG2R team bikes

Van Rysel and Decathlon signed a five-contract with AG2R – that’s a long time for a contract with a pro team. “I really wanted to build something on a long-term basis for various reasons,” says Delabre. “One of the reasons was to prove that our products are the best on the market. It’s not only wind tunnel tests, you need to prove it in the field. You need to do it on a long-term basis to get cyclists on board. What they will find in our stores is what they see on TV winning races. Plus, you need some lead time to develop it with the team. We want to develop it with them and then ride it.”

It’s not the first time Decathlon has supplied AG2R’s bikes – Jaan Kirsipuu’s 2001 aluminium Decathlon Penta Pro is displayed in the Van Rysel Cafe as a reminder – so did Van Rysel really want them because of the shared history? “That was the cherry on the cake honestly but it just made sense. It’s more complex when you’re not the exclusive headline sponsor of the team so you have to get a perfect relationship with the co-partner [La Mondiale] and the team – so there’s three different parties in the relationship. La Mondiale owns the team since 2022, so obviously they are part of the decision-making process. It’s like a marriage. So you need to make sure you’re ready to live in harmony for the next five years. We are not only putting a cheque on the table and sending some products. It’s completely different from that. We want to make sure that we meet our common objectives and also work together with them to co-design our product. So you need to be fully aligned with the team members, the staff, the riders to make sure it can be done. Once we understood that there were a few teams that could fit with our wishlist, we went more into detail and then it was up to us to prove that we could deliver the best product for them to win. We went further specifically with AG2R at that time and we gave them the bikes to test.”

Close up of a Van Rysel RCR Pro seat tube

Van Rysel started in 2019 – why has it taken five years to get to the WorldTour? “The purpose of creating Van Rysel was to address the most demanding cyclists in the most demanding environments, so naturally that means the WorldTour. You don’t do that from one day to the next. First you need to get the right product and we really wanted to get winning bikes. We needed to develop them properly, then to convince where we are coming from… that these are the tools that will support them in their quest for victory. We started in the WorldTour with clothing – we supplied the Cofidis team’s kit in 2022 and 2023, so it’s a step-by-step process. And you need more than just one bike – there’s the RCR Pro plus the TT bike – and not only bikes but accessories, so we came in with the helmets and glasses so now we have the whole panoply for WorldTour level and that’s why we needed to take the time to deliver perfect products for the highest results."

Simon Smythe interviewing Maxime Delabre

“We have more or less 100 people working 100% for Van Rysel," continues Delabre. "This year we have launched our first gravel bikes. We’ve launched six new frames [with two more to come, including the TT bike]. There are three new shoes, three new helmets and I could also mention new jerseys and the first Van Rysel store in London.”

It’s the feelgood story of 2024 – the WorldTour’s most affordable bike ridden to an unprecedented number of wins by a revitalised French team, with the promise of top-quality tech covering every cycling need to be rolled out to the wider community. It's going to fascinating to find out whether Sean Kelly's prediction holds true at the Tour de France and then to follow the team and Van Rysel's trajectory from there.

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