After a long season logging tens of thousands of kilometres, most professional cyclists just want to sit and do as little as possible come October and November. It’s a case of holidaying somewhere sunny and having a taste of normal life and calorific food for a few precious weeks.
Not for Europcar rider Antoine Duchesne. He has spent the past two months learning the ropes on a 15-acre vineyard in the Rhône. His time as a stagiaire has included picking grapes during harvest for twelve hours a day, learning about fermentation and lifting 30kg grape boxes in lieu of more conventional gym workouts.
“I’m doing studies into being a sommelier,” he explains over the phone from his home in France. “I want to be involved in the wine business later, it’s a passion of mine. It’s good to do something else and think about other stuff than cycling. You get massages, everybody does everything for you [in that world], it’s refreshing to get into normal life.”
You can’t fault his work ethic: alongside his two jobs, Duchesne is also doing a marketing degree in Québec, learning at distance in his own time. He even considered having his books sent to the Vuelta. “I know that even if I could get them shipped over, it would have been too hard to study after a stage,” he says, laughing.
The 24-year-old is quite the non-conformist. Instead of making a beeline for the likes of Nice or Girona like many peers, Duchesne settled in the sleepy Rhône town of Saint-Restitut with compatriot Hugo Houle (Ag2r-La Mondiale), surrounded by lavender and vineyards.
“We basically got an apartment on the top of a mountain,” he says. “There are big summer houses around and people only come then mainly. It’s super quiet and beautiful for riding: I’ve only ridden twice in the rain.”
The Canadian turned professional with Europcar in 2014, a rare foreigner on the predominantly French team. He caught their eye at the GP Québec and Montreal and signed on the dotted line soon afterwards, helped by some kind words in the management’s ears from Europcar’s clothing supplier, Louis Garneau.
Two years since his debut, Duchesne has assimilated seamlessly into the fold. It’s easy to see why: he is charismatic, funny and amicable.
“It’s been really great. I’m happy that the guys gave me a chance because I’m not the type of rider that had many results but I always got in breakaways and worked hard. On paper, I wasn’t a superstar U23 coming up. For them, I was kind of a gamble.
“I think I proved them right so far, I always did my job well, I got some results here and there. I’m really grateful that Jean-René [Bernaudeau, team manager] gave me my chance.”
Duchesne got through his maiden Grand Tour, the 2015 Vuelta a España, with aplomb. “I was really surprised how I managed,” he says. “I was expecting to be completely dead the last week, but I still had power and was able to do my work, trying to get in breakaways… I never had a bad day, the thought of giving up never crossed my mind.”
The squad’s combative racing philosophy and spirit suits Duchesne well. “On paper, we’re never really big favourites. If you gave us 30 million Euros, then you can buy all the best cyclists there is, but I think a team of our budget manages to get results and show the jersey on TV as much as one that has four times our budget.”
The squad, soon to be known as Direct Energie as it changes sponsor at the turn of the season, is an endearing throwback in modern cycling, a modest team clearly attached to a region, Vendée in central-west France.
With roots going as far back as the Bonjour team, which started in 2000, fans in their home department aren’t shy to show their fondness. “When you train there, everybody smiles and waves at you from cars as they pass. They go on the horn just to say ‘hi’. If Thomas [Voeckler] is out, they’ll even stop for photos,” he says.
Too heavy to be an effective puncheur like his talismanic team-mate, tall Duchesne instead has his heart set on the cobbled Classics.
“I learned cycling in Belgium when I was a junior and U23, so I love those roads and the way it is there. The nervousness, when you have to fight with all the big guys, the rain, all that stuff. It’s a really intense feeling,” he says.
“So far I’m still not strong enough but, especially this year, I felt I had much more confidence. Like in the Tour of Flanders, for the first 200 kilometres, I was able to be in the front when it was going full gas. After that, I felt like I still had some endurance missing in the last 50 kilometres, when the big guys open it up.
“That is the little gap I need to cross. But I feel like if you give me two or three more years, more experience, get the engine growing, I think I could become a good Classics rider.”
Like the wine he helped to create, which will stay ageing until April 2018, it’s a case of wait and see for Duchesne too. He is a work in progress, gathering strength and experience in the cobbled Classics. When the time comes to uncork that bottle of red, he might just be supping something a lot sweeter and fizzier on a podium in northern Europe.
Antoine Duchesne also features in an article going behind the scenes with Team Europcar, published in issue 59 of Rouleur, out now.