The woman in the ticket queue at Lille station was plainly deranged. Her ranting monologue, directed at no one in particular, everyone with ears to hear, seemed to originate in root distaste for everywhere in general, Belgium in particular. She’d escaped, once, and was heading back there. I neither sympathised nor was indifferent. A lot of pro cyclists feel the same – about Belgium, I mean, 20 kilometres across the border.
Flanders. Strong winds, rain (horizontal, slantwise, head-on – how does rain turn corners so fast?), foul roads, cobbles, ruts, potholes, ruined verges, fields of mud, and an insensate passion at the side of the broken tracks which bristles with an animal ferocity. And then, the Flemish themselves, the big-shouldered, burly, no-quarter flahutes who ride the races in the manner of French seigneurs, pre-revolution, on their hunting domain: if anything, or anybody, gets in the way, tough.
However, Sylvain Chavanel quit Cofidis, the French team par excellence, in 2008, to join the archetypal Belgian outfit, Quick Step, and I was in Lille on my way, partly to find out why. That and other things.
The train to Kortrijk set off into drizzle, skies the colour of old putty, across a landscape churned and flattened by centuries of plough and warfare, featureless fields, outcrops of warehouse, factory and nondescript windowless edifices, railway sidings, small towns enlivened only by publicity posters for Leffe beer.
Next day, they’d be riding across similar terrain in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, formerly Het Volk (the latter newspaper is defunct). I felt mildly depressed, but sneakingly impressed, too, that there were riders to whom this was the idea of racing perfection. Not just against yourself and rivals, but against the machinations of whatever spirit of bad weather it is that seems to hold permanent court in Flanders. And Chavanel, darling of the French peloton, is now mixing it in the bruising of the new ring.
I’d booked into a hotel out of town where the team was staying. The press officer told me the news conference was at 2pm and I could talk to the man afterwards. The original rendezvous was pre-dinner. You take on a date and time for an interview, but never depend on it happening. Date rhymes with wait, and that’s what I had to do. Normal. Eddy Merckx was at lunch in the dining room.
At the press conference: Tom Boonen, Gert Steegmans and Chavanel. Boonen, the star, fielded most of the questions. Steegmans sat silent, large-framed, watchful, like a minder for the made man. Chavanel smiled enigmatically. At one point, one of the telly journos maneuvered a microphone in front of him. He smiled, leaned forward conspiratorially and shook his head: “I’m not answering any questions.” It was all in Flemish so far.
He did answer a question, in fact, in French. What was his plan, or something as anodyne. He said he thought he could do something. The conference broke up.vVarious people, clutching microphones, dictaphones and cameras swooped, and I sat there thinking, bad time, this. He’s going to be distracted, not in the mood. Free, at last, he walked off and I introduced myself. Yes, fine, he was going for a ride, six o’clock in the lobby? Agreed.
6pm… 6.25pm. I see him come back from the ride, deliver the bike to the mechanics working outside the main entrance – the new Merckx machines, all carbon, integrated seat post. He also gives them his shoes (they get cleaned, inside and out, as we saw on the rest day in Pau last year. The riders do their own. Not Chavanel. He’s royalty).
He comes into the lobby, sees me, smiles and says, with unaffected charm: “Oh, sorry, I forgot. Come up while I’m having my massage.” Alessandro, the press officer is on hand. He’ll fetch me.
I go off to wait in the soulless hotel conference room, the only place I could find for us to sit and talk, and was glad. It wasn’t conducive. Time passes. Mild anxiety sets in. How long does it take to have a shower? Was it a brush off? Have they forgotten? I start to pace and, prowling, meet Alessandro. Down, impatience, down. We go up in the lift to the fourth floor, along the corridor and into the room.
Low lighting from standard lamps, the television on, muted, music from an MP3 player, Chavanel leaning against a plump pillow, stretched out on the massage table, soigneur at work.
He smiles. “Do you like this music?”
It’s not any genre I could readily identify and I didn’t think it appropriate to get into “Aimez-vous Brahms?” or declare my tastes contrary to what he chooses to relax to. I smile back, shrug – comme ci, comme ça. Alessandro lowered the volume.
I endeavour, always, to clear my head before an interview, to put aside any preconceptions, but I confess to having been unconvinced about Chavanel. Reputedly the highest-paid French rider, what of his palmares? Highly respectable, but is there something missing? I’m pleased to say that this maggot of prejudice is now dead, squashed by my own admission of sorry error. It’s important not to take one’s dislikes personally.
In 2008 he became the first Frenchman to win both Brabantse Pijl and the Dwars door Vlaanderen – victories which, he told me, were the galvanising force that precipitated the move to Quick Step. (This latter race he finished after 30km on his own, the peloton snapping at him, sometimes no more than 15 seconds down.) “I should have done it years ago.”
He didn’t elaborate more than to say that riding alongside Boonen, a rider capable of winning the great Classics (as, by implication, he probably is not) was a huge privilege. I think he meant, too, that it added stimulus. Not that he needed it, he assured me. He integrated well, the Frenchman in the Belgian outfit, got on with the job (“I did my thing”), a solitary who can mix with the group.
Above all, it was mutual respect which counted and a recognition of his class. It felt good, too: that he stressed. Whatever he does has to feel right: the word he used was assiette – plate, which starts off as seat on a horse, as in a good seat, then in good form.
I began by asking him if he minded my recording the interview – I don’t use a machine for English but for French I’m caught between taking notes in one or the other language.
“But you speak good French,” he said… pause… “like me,” and laughed. “Do you speak Flemish?” I add, alluding to the incident with the mic.
“No, that was a joke.” He laughed again. Relaxed, easy-going. A significant help to me. I launch in. What about last year’s Tour? He put in a stunning – époustouflant – performance: two cracking stage wins, the yellow jersey, lost and taken back, and overall prize for combativity (as also in 2008).
Yes, he says, it was a good Tour and he always tries to do what he can. But last year is last year. Was he super-motivated? “I’m always motivated and, of course, it’s a fine thing for a French rider to have a good Tour. Everything went well. It was ‘easy’.” The French phrase in inverted commas indicates an ironic tone, hinting at a larger explanation behind the statement. He did the job, he succeeded, and so it was, finally, simple.
What’s difficult, by contrast, is failure or setback. Let’s instance the horrific crash towards the end of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, April 25, 2009: a fractured skull, two months in hospital. Five days after he left the joint, he phoned Patrick Lefèvre, the Quick Step manager, and told him that he intended to ride the Tour. “Be careful,” said Lefèvre, “think of your health, what you’re going to do after the bike.”
Chavanel replied: “I know myself, I know what I’m capable of.” Sheer torture on the turbo to get back into form. The Tour de Suisse in virtual anonymity. But he rode the Tour. As Merckx told him at the finish after his audacious first stage win, solo after a long break, in 2010: “Incredible what you’ve done, what courage.”
He expanded on that win: “I’ve had bad luck in other years, last year I was clear of that. I attack, I get in the breaks – I always attacked on my own as an amateur. I like to be out in front, away from the crowd.
"I finish the job and it’s important for a rider to attack with brio. Maybe that means finishing lower down on GC, but I don’t want to sacrifice an entire season to finish second or third in the Tour.”
If he was having a dig at riders who do just that, it didn’t surface in what seemed to me a genuine statement of the puncheur creed: you honour the sport by riding hard all year round, being generous to the great tradition. To ride, if ever possible, with panache.
“Yes, it’s important for me and always has been, it’s my instinct and sometimes it may have seemed a bit silly but just to roll along in the peloton waiting for something to happen doesn’t interest me. That’s why I like riding in Belgium – the races are spectacles, putting on a show.” He might have glossed that by saying that it’s chaotic, pell-mell, eyeballs-out – the kind of reckless élan that suits his temperament.
“Do you like the pavé?”
“It doesn’t worry me – I like it. I really like Flanders, but all the races in Belgium, any one.”
I read in this the regained enthusiasm which came from putting himself voluntarily outside a comfort zone. He is 32, on a new contract, much still to achieve and still intent on “doing the best I can, to be 100 per cent in every race. I like to be ready all year – that’s what gives me pleasure.”
I asked him why he didn’t ride the course recce with the team on Wednesday. He might have bridled, but didn’t. “No, I went today, over the Kruisberg and the Molenberg, but it’s the same course as last year, I know it.” In fact, he spent the week at home with his wife and two young children in Poitiers, not far from where he grew up.
He’d got back from the Tour de l’Algarve, faced a full weekend of racing (Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday) and “in races like this it’s important to be fresh, physically and psychologically, so I prefer to be at home and to relax.”
When I asked him about earpieces – the UCI had decreed that they wouldn’t be worn in the Omloop – he showed that very French way of frustration, relegating the question to a banality submerging a more important issue.
“It passes me by, rather. At the moment all the talk is about earpieces, the Contador affair… they’re not talking about the sport any more. Anyway, they should have sorted it out at the end of the season, after Lombardy. Now it’s too late and they dither. It’s half the races with, half without. That says nothing. We’re ready to do what’s required but… what can I say?” He laughs.
“They should make up their minds and I think it should be a majority decision – ask the riders, they have to ride the races. There are positive arguments for and against, but right now, it could easily be just a mess. We have to live with our epoch. One can’t go backwards, what’s past is behind us.”
This hints at a central problem: there are riders who have never ridden without earpieces and the near uncanny ability to read a race from the middle of a peloton, the sort of alertness which the sharpest men acquired by close attention to experience, is largely defunct. And a lot of sponsors insist on communication – they need their men to make a showing, even if not for victory but for airtime on the television.
And, in view of the fact that many riders have become so used to being in constant touch with the team car – obstacles ahead, breaks going clear, being hauled in, when to go, when not to go, pedal stroke by pedal stroke – the quickness to react impromptu is inevitably dulled. In the last few years, as Chavanel says, the sudden absence of radio communication has caused problems – crashes, entanglements with following cars in the jostling queue which can build up between the bunch and the break, punctures which aren’t well handled. It can make for a real dog’s breakfast – or “bordel”, as Chavanel puts it…
I pressed him on the subject of morale among the French riders which had, for a while, been patently on the slide. He rather dismissed the notion. They have a good level in France, a lot of wins since the beginning of the season.
“Is that evidence of a new charge of spirit?”
He answered before I could put it to him that the example of the older generation – him, Thomas Voeckler, even the late-blossoming Christophe Moreau – had much to do with an observable change. His reply hinted that this wouldn’t be something he’d embrace readily: an innate modesty, I’d say.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think so. They got wins in Qatar, Mallorca…and I hope it will continue. When we come to the big Classics, it’s a higher degree altogether. We had people like [Laurent] Jalabert and [Richard] Virenque at world class and we have to wait for others to emerge.”
There’s no question in my mind that he is happy with his role as elder professional, still “doing his thing”. He is conscious, too, that this attitude will indeed stimulate others. Solitary by disposition he may be, but he has that easy acceptability of all the demands of the job which shows in he is a deeply committed professional, a man of his trade, and an all-outer – which is his trademark.
When I ask him what his objective for the season is, I supply the word even before he responds: “Gagner?”
He smiles. The soigneur lifts his right leg to plant it on the table; Chavanel reaches for the pillow, pummels it briefly and reclines once more.
“Yes, it’s important to win, to go for victory. You can come in with the lead bunch but I don’t care about that. If I feel good – and that’s the main thing – I make a break and I look round to see if there’s anyone there or not. But I’m not one to think about advantage or disadvantage. Je roule. If I can win two or three races, on good courses, as I’ve done these last few years, that I would like very much.”
Example: Tour de France, 2010, stage two, Brussels to Spa. Only 11km from the start, Chavanel breaks clear and is joined by a number of others. He attacks once more alone on the Col de Stockeu, some 33km from the finish. Only Jürgen Roelandts stays with him until he, too, falls away, on the Col du Rosier, 20km on.
In the rain, on slick, wet roads, Chavanel presses on to win by nearly four minutes and to take the yellow jersey. Interviewed after that victory, he said he didn’t have superior qualities in certain areas – he can’t sprint like Boonen, for instance, so he has to find other ways of winning “to make a splash”.
It’s true that he doesn’t win so many races as the great champions “but when I do win, it gets noticed.” Paradoxically, he said, all the way through the escape he struggled to convince himself that it would come off, but he didn’t want to be disappointed if he failed once again, and gradually he got stronger.
The simple analysis is “it ain’t over till it’s over”, but the deeper explication is of a psychological toughness that can weather the doubt, know it for what it is and stick to the base instinct: to attack, no matter what, cost what it costs and to hell with the risk.
It seems to me an admirable attitude, a coupling of self-knowledge and careless courage, even joie de vivre. When he was asked about the fact that the race had been neutralised by Fabien Cancellara because of a massive crash on the slippery surface of the final col, he expressed disappointment – they should have raced for second place and their failure to do so showed a lack of respect for the Tour de France.
Crashes are a daily hazard of the sport – cobbles, treacherous surfaces, road furniture, no matter – and to give in so meekly was to show him, as winner that day, no consideration.
If this reaction may not make sense to some people, it makes perfect sense to me. In a curious way, too, it adds to the debate about earpieces, the possible numbing effect they may be said to have. As early as August 1961, a doctor wrote to L’Equipe to complain about the fact that “the directeurs sportifs are in control, moving their pawns (the riders) about with more or less virtuosity”.
Free enterprise, the chancy attack, going for broke, the piratical vim of the baroudeur – isn’t this what makes bike racing so special? By comparison with anodyne tactics, bunch policing the break at a calculated distance, all monitored from the team cars, and timing the regroup to seconds.
Well, it’s not going to change without a lot of protest from both sides of the earpiece lobby, the fudge and half-cock of the UCI aside. What is sure, the readiness of some riders, Chavanel in the fore, to seek to bring their own fate to their heels rather than the other way round is entirely uplifting.
A mechanical breakdown and two punctures, added to the fatigue of the day before, cost him yellow over the cobbles on stage three, but four days later, at the finish on the ski Station des Rousses, he took his second stage and recovered the Golden Fleece. It was quite something.
The soigneur patted him lightly on the knee – time to turn over. He swung round to lie prone, twisting his head to carry on talking but I judged the moment to leave. I had one last question, a question I could have answered for him: How long would he carry on racing?
“I’d like another three years. Sure. The passion is still there. We have to see. If the flame to keep training stays burning… It’s competition, racing against others which spurs me. The day I get sick of picking up my suitcase, that will be the time to think about other things.”
I switch off the machine – happy that our conversation skipped along so easily that I didn’t once have to look at my prompt sheet – reach across and shake his hand. “Good luck.”
I make for the door as he laughs, with evident pleasure, and says to Alessandro: “I’m getting quite good at this business of interviewing, am I not?”
Alessandro responds, cheerily: “Yes, you are.”
I agree. “Yes, very good marks.” Laughter. I leave with a new version of Chavanel, an entirely pleasing and admirable version of a rider with heart, intelligence and candour.
We'll be adding a new letter to our alphabetical guide every day during the 2014 Tour de France.