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Sylvain Chavanel: what I learned from 19 years in the pro peloton

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“Keep your chin up. There are worse things in life than a bad bike race.” Pearls of wisdom from Sylvain Chavanel as he retires from the sport after a long, decorated career

Photographs: Offside/L'Equipe
Sylvain Chavanel, 2018

Two days before the start of the 2014 Tour de France, I visited Sylvain Chavanel in his Harrogate hotel room for an interview.

 

I intended to include one of the most experienced riders in the peloton in a feature of letters to their younger selves that appeared in issue 50 of Rouleur.

 

Within a minute, I realised he wasn’t going to be appearing alongside the advice of Sean Yates, Allan Peiper and Jens Voigt in that segment.

 

Because, after I asked Chavanel the fundamental question, he replied “I can’t really answer that because I have no regrets in my career. I’ve always done what I wanted to do.”

 

Fair enough. What followed was a nevertheless fascinating reflection on cycling, life and what an ambitious young rider should do.  A few old hands could probably learn something too.

Chavanel attack, Paris-Nice 2014

Today’s new generation have personal trainers and really specific work. I have a more different vision of cycling: it’s more like a game, about having fun. I’m not a rider who does the general classement at the Tour de France. For me, the enjoyment is in blowing up the bunch.

 

So the advice I can give: keep that pleasure for as long as possible in a professional career because it can become a routine, the same thing, the same work every year. To say “you have to do it like this, like that?” No, take a bit of everything. Base it on numbers, but do it on feeling too.

 

Casquette: in praise of the cotton cap

 

Cycling is a passion that subsequently became my métier, but at the very base of it, I’m very fortunate to be able to do this job, what I love, because it’s a dream for all young amateur riders.

 

If I have a natural class in cycling, it’s principally thanks to my parents. I come from a family of lower-class factory workers, four brothers and one sister. When I saw the Tour as a kid, we’d played games as little model cyclists. The first Tour [of my 17] is the biggest I remember. The crowds, the publicity caravan, everything that was a dream become reality.

Chavanel and Armstrong, 2003 Tour

Being a star came just like that, very fast, from my first years. Suddenly, I was in front of the cameras, I had a style, a face, a class on the bike. I was in an easy position: they came naturally to me, it wasn’t me who sought everyone out.

 

I have no regrets in my career. I’ve always done what I wanted to do, even if at given moments, they thought of me as a Grand Tour racer and since 2008, a Classics rider. But it’s allowed me also to discover different worlds.

 

Inside Direct Energie’s Vendée manor house HQ

 

A strong mindset is important. Keep your chin up, even if there are tough moments. It’s normal in sport: one day you won’t go well, the next day you’ll fly. There are worse things in life than a bad bike race.

Chavanel, 2010 Tour

You could say that sport is a good school for life because different generations meet there. You grow, you gain maturity, but on the other hand, you stay young. I hope to stay young for as long as possible!

 

You do think more about the future in cycling as you get older. But nothing concrete, it’s just bla bla. It’s also important to prepare yourself psychologically. For example, it could all stop one day: tomorrow, you could fall into a depression. It’s important to say, I’ve got my parents, my wife, my kids, a normal life.

 

Lastly, keep that flame burning for as long as possible. Always in the wind and with that joy.

 

Sylvain Chavanel was a professional cyclist between 2000 and 2018.