For our next chapter, I want to take us to France. Yes, many or maybe all of us have had our thoughts preoccupied by the horrors of last Friday evening, and while I don't think I can open a forum here for that which would help people do something they weren't already doing. We have so many ways to connect that it's probably best for the Cafe to be a place where maybe we can escape from discussions of war. But if people feel otherwise, be my guest.
Still, in the spirit of paying respects to our historic allies, and because it's worth doing anyway, let's dive into the Mind of Madiot, and his FDJ.fr lot.
What we Thought Coming In
We haven't done a capsule for them in a while. Are we just lazy? Maybe. If we had, it would have consisted of 1500 words about Thibaut Pinot and Arnaud Demare, with some mild grousing about letting Nacer Bouhanni go. I like that guy's moxie.
What We Got Instead
What we expected from one, and not the other. That's cycling.
Thibaut Pinot's season has to be one of the biggest stories in the sport. Why? Because he's 25 and he keeps getting better. Back in 2012, scene of his famous solo stage win at the Tour, with Madiot pounding the car door, we began expecting big things from him, but two middling seasons and some whispers about his bike handling abilities eroded those hopes. Since then, it's been nothing but a positive trend, with his point totals rising (he was up to 10th in the world this year at both CQRanking and the Podium Cafe) and with Pinot delivering big results for his team.
In speaking with Cyclingpro.net, Madiot credited Pinot with "saving our season" by his win on Alpe d'Huez and other results. While decrying an "average" year marked by insufficient motivation below the leadership levels, Madiot cited Pinot's bounce-back from illness early on in the Tour as progress and as a sign that he is ready to handle grand tours from now on. In fact, it all changed on stage 12, when Pinot, lying 34 minutes in arrears, finally regained the legs to hang with the maillot jaune group to Plateau de Beille. He finished in Paris a full 38 minutes back (I doubt he tried too hard to preserve his time gap) but by being arguably the strongest rider in the Alps showed the maturity and class he'll need going forward. Better still, Pinot finished strong in the fall for the first time, winning the very competitive and hilly Tour de Gevaudan as well as finishing third at Lombardia and fourth at Milano-Torino.
The team's other pillar, Arnaud Demare, saw his fortunes dip, though Madiot maintains it wasn't about his basic strength. Two wins in 2015 is half of his total from the previous October, and it's hard to put a brave face on that number. Still, Madiot chalked it up to the luck of the classics, and to maybe needing to be more demanding of his support riders. Me, I think I found another culprit: better competition. Your wins are only as good as the guy in second, right? Well here are Demare's victims in 2014: Daniele Bennati, Ramon Sinkeldam, Jonas Ahlstrand, Sinkeldam again, and again, Kris Boeckmans, Nacer Bouhanni (French Nats), Luka Mezgec, Yahueni Hutarovich, Adrien Petit, Jens Debusschere, and Debusschere again. This year he beat Tom Boonen twice in the Ronde van Belgie, and that's it. So yeah, 2014 was better, but while those guys aren't tomato cans, I'd argue that his victory total in 2014 gave the world somewhat inflated expectations about what he could do against the world's best sprinters. His fifth in Paris was the best Demare could do in the Tour. But in March, he ran second to Greipel in a Paris-Nice stage, ahead of Bouhanni, Degenkolb, Matthews and several other top sprinters, so at least at some point in the year he hung with the fastmen.
The hope of him winning a classic fizzled badly, Demare finished a horrific Gent-Wevelgem in 15th place, after a crash and several wind-related stoppages, which is itself an accomplishment, but couldn't build on his dreams at Flanders or Roubaix. One-day races are fickle enough, and Demare showed his class at the 200km distance in Wevelgem, where he previously made the podium. But the lack of another sprinter put too much pressure on the native of Beauvais, just west of the Hell of the North. In 2014, Bouhanni's exploits helped everyone relax, particularly the man on whose shoulders those missing wins fell in 2015. I guess it sounds like I'm making excuses, which I'm not, because something went wrong, but it wasn't because Demare forgot how to train.
After the two leaders, Alexandre Geniez put together a season that shouldn't be overlooked, finishing ninth in the Giro, doing some excellent attacking and teamwork for Pinot in the Tour, and winning the Tour de l'Ain -- a nice palmare for a French team -- in August. Same could be said of his win in Tro Bro Leon, everyone's favorite race that we can't expect to see live. Except now you can watch it all on YouTube, and it's awesome.
Geniez had the goods in the small-group uphill sprint, making his results a nice mix of successes on varying terrain. Three victories in a season is a career-best for Pinot's right-hand man.
Other positives: Kenny Elissonde had a mild breakthrough in the Vuelta, taking 14th, which is a step up for the 24-year-old. Aaaand... that's about it. Like Madiot said, it wasn't the most inspired season up and down the roster.
Top Three Highlights
A Future Tour is Won on the Alpe.
Well, at least that's what the Thibaut Pinot Hype Machine wants us to believe. So of course I do. You can tack on all sorts of caveats here, like the fact that Froome wasn't terribly worried about the guy sitting at +38' but the win is as notorious a Tour stage win as a non-contender could hope for, and brought the team back to life after what had been an awful Tour.
Geniez wins Tour de l'Ain
I know he'll be 28, but FDJ have to like the looks of this guy as part of a broader plan in stage races.
Demare takes a couple stages in Belgium.
Scratching a bit, but at least by late season there was reason to hope that he'll pick things back up in 2016. I guess I could have gone with Pinot's win in the Tour de Suisse queen stage, but all that did was tee up more hopes to be dashed early on in the Tour.
Bottom Three Lowlights
There's only so many assumptions you can make based on a random quote from the team director, but I'll say this: the previous year Nacer Bouhanni had won races in February, March, April May, and took the Giro points jersey on June 1. If you're looking for what was missing in 2015, you might want to start there.
That's the general heading for all things related to Demare's big points drop.
Pinot's immune system.
Who gets sick at the beginning of summer? Oh yeah, guys with no body fat. Pinot didn't stand a great chance of matching his podium place at the Tour, given the number of top guys (starting with Froome) who went missing in 2014, but on the other hand it was a decent course for him, and there's always hope. So yeah, a chest infection during week 1 was a kick in the pants. For the whole team.
Who's coming and going?
In: More kids, like stage racers Marc Fournier and Jeremy Maison. A couple vets, like the useful Sebastian Reichenbach (late of IAM) and Ignatas Konovalovas. And two young Norwegian all-rounders from Team Joker, Daniel Hoelgaard and the sublimely-named Odd Christian Eiking.
Out: David Boucher, Arnold Jeannesson, Anthony Geslin, Francis Mourey. No word on Yoann Offredo, Arthur Vichot, Laurent Pichon, Anthony Roux or Mickael Delage.
Verdict: Can't bemoan any of those departures. Madiot says he likes to coach up the kids, so he's got a few more, and maybe some fresh enthusiasm, to work with. Results-wise, they're all lottery tickets for the time being.
What Happens Next?
This isn't a team on the verge of major changes. When Madiot scouted out Pinot, Demare, Geniez et al from the ranks of French youth, he assembled some essential building blocks for a French team with a modest budget, so the trick is continuing to develop the talent he has and supplement it whenever possible. You can spin the wheel of fortune all you want on Demare, but there is little doubt he has the talent to succeed in the classics, particularly as the dominant forces of Cancellara and Boonen make way for the next generation. My guess is as good as yours but I'll say the disappointment of 2015 is exactly what every classics rider needs to make it to the next level. That and his own internal strength. Pinot's, on the other hand, seems pretty clear, and if he isn't on the podium of a grand tour this year, it'll be a mild upset. Mild only because he's French, therefore he's sentenced to go chasing after the maillot jaune every year of his career, which means we won't see what he could do in the Giro d'Italia, for instance, where he just might be sensational. Oh well. As for the Tour, he's not next in line to inherit anything as long as Don Nairo is still upright, and Froome isn't going away too soon either. But Pinot should make things more interesting.
There isn't much more to say about a middlin' French team, but I guess I can take a moment and express my appreciation (bias?) for Marc Madiot, whom I long ago admired as a rider and who seems to be running a nice outfit all things considered. People are far more complicated than you can discern from a few moments captured on TV, but all the evidence says that Madiot is one of the more passionate team directors out there, a refreshing thing in the era of tycoons, oil money, and the Murdochs. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the new teams and their sophisticated ways, but it's good for the sport to have ties to the era of Guimard at the top level. FDJ is impossible to root against, and hopefully they'll be relevant enough in 2016 to test that dynamic more.