How FDJ and French cycling caught up with the rest of the peloton
Is it finally here? Every year since I can remember having followed cycling there is talk about how the French are back, or are on their way back.
At the Tour de France, which hasn’t had a French winner since Bernard Hinault back in 1985, we have seen Richard Virenque, Christophe Moreau, Thomas Voeckler, Pierre Rolland all hailed as the next French Tour winner, but still nobody has managed the feat.
It’s the same story at most major races. Paris-Roubaix’s last French winner was Frédéric Guesdon in 1997, at Liège-Bastogne-Liège it was Hinault in 1980, at the Vuelta a España it was Laurent Jalabert in 1995, and at the World Championships it was Laurent Brochard in 1997.
And it’s not just that they haven’t won these big races, it’s that no French riders have looked like coming close to doing so. There has been much talk about the peloton à deux vitesses but even as cycling moved into this cleaner era, the struggles of French cycling continued.
But now things look to be changing, and in a big way.
Putting aside the polemica, on which inrng wrote a great piece, earlier this month we saw FDJ’s Arnaud Démare win Milano-Sanremo – the first Frenchman to do so since Jalabert back in 1995.
Sure, he was an outsider but it marks a change in fortunes for the 24-year-old, who has yet win a Tour stage, and ensures his place at the top table of the sport.
Things are looking up elsewhere too.
The first name that springs to mind is Thibaut Pinot, the great hope for the Tour de France. He finished third in 2014 and has been in the top five of every race he’s competed in so far this season, most recently a dominating display at the Critérium International which included his first ever time trial victory. Will this be the year he joins the elite four of Contador, Froome, Nibali and Quintana?
His FDJ team has improved in many areas so far this season, notably with respect to time trialing. In February they won their first ever team time trial at the La Méditerranéenne stage race.
At the 12km Tirreno-Adriatico TTT, the team finished third – ahead of usual powerhouses Movistar and Sky and just nine seconds off winners, the TTT World Champions BMC.
At Tirreno’s closing San Benedetto del Tronto TT, the team had six riders in the top thirty, with Johan Le Bon beating Tony Martin to second place. This weekend seven of the team’s eight riders finished in the top 18 at the Critérium International time trial.
Frédéric Grappe, FDJ’s performance director, told me that “the excellent results of this season were expected.”
And the reasons why? Well some of the credit can go to the team’s new LaPierre Aerostorm DRS bikes, designed in conjunction with Grappe and FDJ, but Pinot has also stepped up. Team manager Marc Madiot told CyclingNews that the team leader had specifically requested that his team improve their time trialing over the winter.
“This winter, Thibaut asked us to form the best possible team for the team time trial. The guys knew that everything started with this event.”
“I think the turning point for the team was the first Worlds in Valkenburg. It was not good at all. It motivated the team and the riders for this discipline they did not necessarily appreciate before.”
When I spoke to Grappe about the bike’s design process, he painted a picture of extremely close collaboration between the team and Lapierre.
“It was total collaboration with Lapierre. We recruited several experts to transpose new aerodynamic concepts, cycling stability, rigidity and biomechanical position,” he says. “Each expert brought new dimensions.”
“My role was to manage the entire project, co-ordinating the entire team and validating the most relevant concepts. It has taken many years of work to get this result.”
While the new bike took a long time to perfect, plans for a new performance centre have been in gestation for ten years, says Grappe. In January FDJ announced the creation of Performance Pole, based in the eastern French city of Besançon, alongside, alongside news of FDJ’s renewed sponsorship.
With this centre comes a new digital system which allows the tracking of training data, statements of rider form and feelings, as well as an archive of race videos for analysis purposes. Also note the addition of a new nutritional partner.
“This performance model has evolved over several years, with the establishment of a research and development department where we work closely with all our partners,” Grappe says. “The trainers, sports directors and mechanics work together in true synergy, and the implementation of the Performance Pole to formalise all the work was very important.”
Grappe told me that the plans for the centre have been in place for over ten years, citing the specialised training of employees as a reason for the wait.
“We worked for several years on a new training model and the optimisation of all materials, and we knew we were in constant progression,” he says.
“First we had to acquire the confidence of the sporting directors and mechanics, then the riders had to gradually adapt to the new team operating model,” he says. “Finally, we recruited three qualified coaches, each with high-level skills in training, and a high level of expertise in engineering.”
“We also have the web platform which manages the entire training process. My motto is to always make the small innovations for the medium and long term.”
This focus on new training methods and increased specialisation is part of a wider trend of modernisation within French cycling, with FDJ leading the way. Think back to last season and FDJ’s team launch video, which put their increased use of technology front and centre.
Then there’s Francis Mourey – the cyclocross specialist and 11-year FDJ veteran that the team stopped sponsoring late last season. This money has gone towards wind tunnel time and training camps for the road squad, while Mourey now rides for Fortuneo-Vital Concept.
It’s not just FDJ either – in an interview with Rouleur magazine last Autumn, AG2R’s Romain Bardet told of how the team has progressed since he joined.
“This year’s team is nothing like the one I turned professional with in 2012. There is more structure now, more trainers, more training camps, and all my data is analysed. Before I didn’t have a power meter or a coach, and you just tried to do what you could.”
Clearly things are changing. At the end of last year his team were busy hiring another coach – a nutrition specialist.
And as for FDJ, there are plans to expand their system, but Grappe is keeping them to himself for now, telling me “Of course there are plans, but I can’t say more…”
It’s obvious that these teams have looked at how the likes of Team Sky are moving forward and have taken note. Now the onus is on moving away from traditionalism and making inroads into those gains, marginal or not, even if the budgets are incomparable.
But enough about the tech, what about the riders? We’ve heard about two of the big names but there’s a wealth of talent coming up too.
First of all there’s AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet, a climber like Pinot and the same age too. He was a revelation at the 2014 Tour de France, finishing sixth overall, and and won the mountain stage to Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne last year, ending up as best Frenchman in ninth.
This season he should be sole leader, given Jean-Christophe Péraud’s advanced age and declining results. At the moment he looks a step behind Pinot, but there’s time.
His teammate Pierre Latour looks a good prospect too. The 22-year-old signed with the team last season and immediately got to work racking up stage race top-ten placings, including the Etoile de Bessegès, Tour de Picardie, Österreich Rundfahrt and the Vuelta a Burgos.
His best results were third at the Route du Sud and Tour de l’Ain and he’s fresh from finishing second overall at the Critérium International. Pais Vasco is up next, and if you want to read more look no further than his recent Rouleur interview.
Sprinter-wise, things are looking good too with Direct Énergie’s 23-year-old Bryan Coquard and Cofidis star Nacer Bouhanni, 25.
A punchy sprinter suited to tougher finishes, Coquard missed out on a big breakthrough victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen by millimetres last week. The flyweight has a grand pedigree, a multiple World Champion in various track disciplines and different age groups. He missed his first main goal of the season, Paris-Nice, with a broken shoulder blade but it’s a case of when, not if, his first big win will come.
Meanwhile, ex-boxer Bouhanni has already arrived, winning five Giro and Vuelta stages in 2014. This season he has won stages at Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya, and was in the mix for Milano-Sanremo too, until mechanical problems saw him beating up his bike. He’ll be looking cement his place as a top sprinter at the Tour, having crashed out early on last summer.
FDJ’s Marc Sarreau is another fast one. Third at Scheldeprijs last season, he also won a stage of the Tour de Poitou-Charentes. This season he has a handful of top ten finishes to his name, but at 22 he’s still learning.
Julian Alaphilippe is a French rider on a foreign team (Etixx-QuickStep), once a rarity but it’s becoming more commonplace nowadays. The 23-year-old puncheur burst onto the scene last season, finishing second in La Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége before heading to the Tour of California, where he won the summit finish on Mount Baldy and almost won the whole race.
However, he suffered from mononucleosis during the offseason and has yet to finish a race in 2016, so maybe expectations should be tempered this spring.
Speaking of the spring, AG2R’s 23-year-old Alexis Gougeard looks a safe bet to be a contender in the cobbled classics in the coming years. He finished 26th in last year’s Paris-Roubaix having featured in the early break, and capped the year with a Vuelta stage win. This season he has a fifth place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to his name.
A year younger than Gougeard, Cofidis’ Florian Sénéchal is another for the cobbles. He beat Gougeard into second at Junior Paris-Roubaix in 2011, and has finished 49th and 17th in the past two editions of the senior race. Podium places at Tro-Bro Léon last year and Le Samyn earlier this month underline his potential.
Anthony Turgis is another young gun riding in red. He won Liége-Bastogne-Liége Espoirs in 2014 and took bronze in last season’s U23 Worlds road race, also winning the Boucles de Mayenne stage race earlier in the season. Earlier this month, the 21-year-old puncheur won the Classic Loire Atlantique by over a minute in a race his team dominated.
U23 World Champion Kevin Ledanois, 22, finished third at that race and has had some decent, if not amazing, results since joining what is now Fortuneo-Vital Concept last season. Top ten placings at last year’s Paris-Camembert and Tro-Bro Léon point to his potential but it’s the Worlds title that really stands out.
Lastly we come to Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Guillaume Martin. A staigiare at FDJ in 2014, they let him go and he went on to win Liége-Bastogne-Liége Espoirs and a summit finish at the Tour de l’Avenir last season. A knee operation in February has delayed his debut, but look out for the 22-year-old once he hits the road in April.
So it looks like there’s a lot to look forward to – the empirical and traditional style of training has slowly been pushed away in favour of the more modern, technology and statistic-based methods employed by the best teams in the world.
The results are already showing, and with a large group of promising up-and-comers still learning the ropes as professionals, it seems that things will keep getting better for French cycling.