Professional cycling’s service courses are usually samey affairs on industrial estates that are all function over fashion.
When we pull up at the 19th century Manoir Saint Michel in the Vendée town of Les Essarts, it’s immediately clear that Direct Energie do things differently. Much more than a kit repository, this is the centre of their mini cycling ecosystem.
This bunch are full of quirks. Five minutes into our tour of the premises, I idly ask the assistant sportif showing us round how long he has worked here. “Oh, I was a rider for eight years, from 2005 to 2012,” Mathieu Claude says.
A versatile chap, Claude (pictured below) sometimes drives the team bus too (“It’s okay, like a car but bigger”). He raced with Bouygues Telecom and Europcar, collecting a top-20 finish at Paris-Roubaix along the way. After struggling to recover from a broken knee in an Estonian race, team boss Jean-René Bernaudeau told him he’d have a place next year, be it as a staffer or rider, and here he has stayed. “Yes, we’re a bit different. Team Sky is a big business with…” he trails off. “Well, it’s different. Itis quite familial here.”
Former racer Bernaudeau is their founder and driving force. It’s a rare case where an amateur team long preceded a professional outfit: he started Vendée-U in 1991, backed by Super-U, a nationwide supermarket chain, and it sprouted into Bonjour in 2000, the first of five professional incarnations. Rarely shy of voicing a strident opinion, the teak-skinned boss grew up down the road and passed on his vision of racing, making his team an enemy to bunch lethargy.
The teams are a curious mix of international and hyper-local, as the Vendée regional council is one of their main partners. Direct Energie will be popular at this Vendée Grand Départ, in turn providing a shop window for the region.
Their marvellous manor – 30 minutes’ drive from the endpoint of stage two, La Roche sur-Yon – serves as the nerve centre for the professional team and a boarding school for their équipe réserve. Bernaudeau bought and renovated it from near ruin.
Away from the stately gaff itself, there are several brickwork rooms outside too. Claude shows us round the service course, with its space for 120 bikes, and another garage-like space where each rider has an individual cubbyhole for correspondence, kit and other sundries, such as the Paris-Camembert trophy sitting in that of Lilian Calmejane.
We crunch across the gravel forecourt to the front door of the manor. Up a staircase with a metal balustrade, the first floor contains a reception, a kitchen and an open plan office. The staff here are responsible for the crucial, unseen grunt work that keeps Direct Energie riding: accounting, administration, hospitality, marketing and logistics.
Above their Post-it notes and stationery are physical manifestations of what they’re all working towards: framed signed polka dot and yellow jerseys on the wall. Meanwhile, trophies clutter several mantelpieces, everything from Tour de Yorkshire combativity prizes to stuffed cows.
Heading up the wooden stairs onto the third and fourth levels is a trip down memory lane. There are old team photos for Vendée-U and Bonjour on the walls, going back to the early 21st century. The young Sylvain Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler, two of the team’s most successful riders, stare back beneath dodgy, dyed blonde fringes.
“Thomas was a ringleader, he’s the one who carried the group for so many things,” Claude recalls. “When he was on the bus, it was always a riot. But everyone was a joker. We try to put everyone at ease: if you come here with a big head, we’ll try to shrink it down.”
There are three dormitories on the upper floors, where Vendée-U’s amateurs regularly stay between races. With six beds to a room, it’s rows of faded mattresses rather than beds of roses. No frills, but better than their old digs in Saint-Maurice-le-Girard, which Charly Wegelius, who raced for the squad in the late 1990s, likened to a terrorist cell in his autobiography Domestique.
Come winter, the manor house is heaving, as the Direct Energie riders stay there for two training camps. Last winter was an exception: the company bosses promised they’d pay for all 70 staff to go away to Guadeloupe if one of their riders won a Tour stage, and kept their word after Lilian Calmejane came good.
The 25-year-old’s victory at Station des Rousses was a symbolic changing of the guard in Thomas Voeckler’s last Tour, and a welcome first stage win at the race for the team in five years.
Its halcyon days still belong to Mr. Gurn-a-lot though: in the meeting room, a blown-up 2011 photograph covers the wall, of a yellow jersey-clad Voeckler and Pierre Rolland embracing. It sums up their collective spirit as underdog baroudeurs working andtriumphing together against the odds. Direct Energie punch well above their budget: their estimated annual budget of €7 million made them the third lowest-funded at the 2017 Tour.
A decade ago, the four longstanding French teams were predominantly breakaway bandits, attacking from far out, more in hope than expectation. Then genuine homegrown yellow jersey prospects Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot emerged, changing AG2R’s and Groupama-FDJ’s fortunes, and modi operandi,considerably.
Cofidis and Direct Energie still focus on being the tearaways of the bunch, the difference being that the boys in black and yellow actually do the business sometimes (Cofidis haven’t won a stage since 2008). “The cycling we don’t like is when a break goes, it comes back and it’s over,” Claude says. “It needs to be lively, an all-out race every day, with one move followed by another move. That’s more like it.
“We are not homogenous. We have a big strength of character and deep roots, which create a supplementary power. It’s not like you’re hired, you work, you pedal, you win races, and then nothing. It’s above all about having a general ambience that makes the team happy.”
Theirs is a unique pyramidal development system that has existed for the best part of 30 years. At the base is the Pôle Espoirs de La Roche sur-Yon junior team, the best of whom progress on to Vendée-U. It remains a fast track to a cycling career:sixteen of Direct Energie’s current crop of 20 raced there.
For these amateur prospects, it’s all about education, education, education. “We try to go back over respect for things, to not cheat,” directeur sportif Damien Pommereau says. “It’s forbidden for our riders to hold onto the team car in races, for instance. It’s not our vision of things, of sport.”
There is a primary school opposite the manor and the children’s playtime shouts echo as he continues:“We’re not their parents saying ‘naughty!’ but we’re teaching life lessons a bit: to be polite, to be respectful. And not cheating is part of that.
“It’s not just doping, there’s other things which unfortunately you see often in the sport. With us, there is no mafia in the races with the other teams either. If we win, we win; if we don’t, no worries, but that’s our guideline…it’s not victory at all costs. That’s not what we want them to learn.”
That said, they win a hell of a lot: Vendée-U have been French Cup champions five times in the last eight years. Lilian Calmejane is their recent star pupil, winning a Vuelta stage as a neo-pro in 2016, then adding that Tour triumph.
“He is a character,” Pommereau says. “Champions are always a little bit complicated, they are people with strong characters. That’s what you need to impose yourself in top-level sport.”
Who will make the step up in 2019? Pommereau reckons Mathieu Burgaudeau. I don’t envy his job, having to get the squad to work together when every single Vendée-U rider harbours the same dream of turning pro. A familial atmosphere still means a fair few arguments and shattered dreams to go with the shared love.
It’s not difficult to see why Voeckler spent his whole 17-year career here, or why riders such as veteran Sylvain Chavanel leave then come back. Team Direct Energie has both a clear identity and a wider humanity, serving as a second home for riders past and present.
The last word goes to Jérôme Cousin, another old boy who returned in 2018 after spending two years at Cofidis.
“I came to Vendée-U at the age of 18. You had le Manoir, the dormitories, you spent your weekends here,” he told local newspaper Ouest-France.
“You share so many moments with the riders. Just look at all the photos hanging on the walls. Most of ours are collective victories. In this team, we develop altruism, we race and we live together. Those are values you see less and less in today’s professional cycling.”
This article is in Rouleur 18.4, out now