Rouleur Classic

Portrait: Jesse Sergent

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Photographs: Paolo Martelli

“A few people told me ‘you’re famous in Belgium now, you’ll always be remembered as the guy that got knocked off by the car in Flanders,’” Jesse Sergent says, half-smiling, half-grimacing. “I just don’t want to be remembered as that guy. Even turning up here [for the first Ag2r-La Mondiale training camp], I don’t want guys to think ‘oh that’s right, he’s the dude that got smashed at the Tour of Flanders.’”
That collarbone-breaking crash shaped his 2015 season; it was four months till Sergent raced again. He calls the year a “write off as far as results go”. But the incident certainly doesn’t have to define his career. Collarbone mended and clad in new team kit as we talked at pre-season training camp in Calpe, this is a fresh start for Jesse Sergent.
After five seasons as a pro with Radioshack and Trek Factory Racing, the Kiwi has transferred to Ag2r-La Mondiale for 2016. “I guess I was looking for a change, something different. I think it was both ways with Trek and me. My time was up there, and they were changing direction a little bit and wanted different riders… Speaking to Ag2r, I felt like they wanted me in a way, more than just to be used for something.”
He picked the French WorldTour team out of three offers in late September. “Coming here and having to learn French probably isn’t the easiest one but I think it’s gonna work out for the best,” he says. Sergent becomes another Kiwi to ride on a French team this century, following the likes of Chris Jenner, Julian Dean, Tim Gudsell and Hayden Roulston.
The 27-year-old will be looking to carve out a niche for himself in time-trials. Buoyed by his ability in that discipline, he broke through in 2011 as a Radioshack neo-pro, winning five races including an Eneco Tour stage and the Tour du Poitou-Charentes.
“I suppose that year I was still doing the track, so you still have that kind of power,” he reflects. “The time-trials I got results in weren’t 40 or 50 kilometres, they were eight, or maximum 15 kilometres,” he says.
After that, he sought to improve his ability in longer tests, but is yet to win another time-trial. However, he couldn’t have come much closer. If 2015 was a wipeout, Sergent considers 2014 to be the finest season of his career. He was third in the Tour of Romandie-concluding test behind Tony Martin and Chris Froome, second in a  Tour of Austria time-trial to Kristof Vandewalle and second at the Vuelta a España, behind Adriano Malori. Sergent was just a few seconds short of the top step.
With this ability, the laidback Kiwi reckons he can also challenge in shorter stage races. “I feel like my recovery is good enough for one-week or five-day races that aren’t too mountainous,” he says.
Sergent has also sharpened his Classics edge in recent years, supporting Fabian Cancellara to wins at Roubaix and Flanders in 2013 and 2014 respectively. “Fabian is good at getting across what he wants you to do and what he expects,” he says. “A lot of the time with me, he’d tell me to be a bit more aggressive. Or not so nice in the peloton.
“I suppose it’s always something I’ve struggled with… it’s never easy in a race to ride like that, but in the Classics you’ve got to look after yourself and your team-mates. If you have to close a gap, you have to put the squeeze on. Then off the bike, you can also be a nice guy.”
Consider the rest of the bunch warned: no more Mr Nice Guy. But we get the easygoing version today. Sergent is a warm young man, smiling and laughing frequently. He’s so nice that he quickly forgave the Shimano neutral service driver for the crash that dumped him out of a Tour of Flanders breakaway and into a Belgian hospital bed.
“A couple of days after Flanders, he came to the team hotel, I guess to see how I was doing. At first I didn’t even want to go and see him. But after getting to the lobby, he said an apology,” Sergent recalls. “He was probably more upset – well, more emotional – than I was by it. The apology was definitely sincere. It helped me, we talked for 20 minutes in the lobby.
“There were quite a few ones like that,” he says, talking about last season’s spike in vehicle-rider incidents in top races. “At the end of the day, he didn’t deliberately drive the car into me – whatever happened, happened. I guess it was just human error. You can’t really change it, can you?”
In his adolescence, Sergent was better at dodging life’s hard knocks. He eschewed following his father and grandfather into speedway racing, shrewdly taking up football and cycling in a nation obsessed by the oval ball. “I didn’t want to get beat up playing rugby! It sounds like the smarter thing, not to do that with all the tough guys.”
Sergent hails from the North Island town of Feilding, which is about as geographically far from cycling’s European heartland as it’s possible to get. “I’m pretty good at sleeping,” he says, referring to his coping method for the 22-hour journey from home to Europe.
He started out mucking around on a bike there as an 11-year-old. “We used to live down the road from… you’d call it a velodrome, it’s probably not what you imagine. It was massive, nearly 500 metres, and it had a rugby field in the middle.”
He soon graduated to more polished arenas, becoming a linchpin of the New Zealand team that took Olympic bronze in the 2008 and 2012 team pursuits. While he won’t be back on the track or Rio 2016, given his background, has he considered tackling the Hour Record in the future? “It’s a cool idea but now Bradley Wiggins did what he did. I guess a lot of good guys went for it over the year. It’s already at a level where it’s not really doing it for fun… the bar is set really high. Sitting on a track bike for an hour, suffering like that for an hour…”
That’s a no for now, without quite saying it. More pressingly, he’ll be getting up to speed with the mother tongue of Ag2r-La Mondiale. Sergent diligently spent two months doing French lessons back home in New Zealand, but it soon became clear at training camp that they were insufficient: “When they’re speaking fast, it’s so hard. Even the accents, some of the guys I get more words, others I can’t understand anything. Hopefully it’ll come.”
Fortunately, results speak louder than faltering French and this easygoing New Zealander knows the fastest way to banish memories of his Flanders misfortune once and for all.
“I’ll have to win something big, eh?” Sergent says, smiling.

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