An interview with Romain Feillu, November 3, 2007
It's been a while since France produced a successful neo-professional like Romain Feillu. Although he's only a member of a Professional Continental team, the young sprinter from Agritubel has a lot of cards to play, as Cyclingnews' Jean-François Quénet found out during the 2007 cycling season.
At the launch of the 2008 Tour de France on October 25, 23 year-old Romain Feillu looked around at the smart environment of Paris' palace of congresses like an enchanted child. Feillu even saw himself in action during a highlights package show from the event's 2007 edition, where he hammered his handlebar after finishing fifth in his first sprint at the world's biggest bike race.
That wasn't a bad feat for a rookie, one he repeated the next day, but Feillu was full of rage after not winning the Grand Tour stage. "I realized the fabulous capacity of Robbie McEwen to accelerate in the last few meters of the race," he remembered with a great admiration for the Predictor-Lotto sprinter from Queensland, Australia.
Prior to his Tour de France debut in July, Feillu declared, "I don't deny any ambitions for myself." The declaration came after his confidence-boosting victories at the Boucles de l'Aulne in Brittany and a stage of the Tour of Luxemburg - the youngster's first two professional wins. At the time, the French cycling community believed in its chances of a better than usual outcome at the Tour, with not only rookie Feillu but also Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré winner Christophe Moreau (AG2r Prévoyance) and cyclo-crosser turned road-climber John Gadret (AG2r Prévoyance), who claimed his first road win at the GP Gippingen in Switzerland. But as usual, the Tour didn't go as well as the French fans hoped.
"I take part in every race as if I was still in the Under 17 category. " -Fearless Feillu says he'll sprint against anyone
After producing a good show in the first week's sprints, Feillu pulled out in the second Alpine stage. The rookie was exhausted and apologized in Tignes, and promised that next year will be different. "For sure I want to approach the Tour with a more appropriate preparation," explained Feillu at the Tour's launch. "This year, I was a bit too tired."
Feillu started his professional career at the Tour of Qatar in January, after taking an impressive second place to Gerald Ciolek at the U23 World Championships in Salzburg, Austria in 2006. From the beginning of 2007 Feillu has proven to be aggressive during stages and not afraid of sprinting against Tom Boonen (Quick.Step-Innergetic) and Alessandro Petacchi (Team Milram) at the end. "I take part in every race as if I was still in the Under 17 category," revealed the 22 year-old of his approach. "In the last kilometres of the event, I don't care who is who, I'm there to win."
Despite being in his first professional season, the extent of Feillu's fearless reputation is such that by March's Paris-Nice ProTour race he was the star attraction for fans at the start of the first stage. There was also a geographical reason for that; the location of the start town of Cloyes-sur-le-Loir is close to where the Feillu lives near Vendôme in the centre of France.
Feillu's reception was an interesting lesson for the world of cycling. Despite month's of fighting between the UCI and the major tour operators, the reality of cycling shone through - thousands of people, including school children who didn't care at all about the ProTour, the politics and the doping controversies, were present at the start of the race. The fans crowded around the Agritubel bus on a working day, despite the freezing temperatures, with the only reason to encourage the up-and-coming local cyclist. Feillu didn't disappoint them either, he was away for almost the whole stage but was caught in the middle of the bunch sprint won by Jean-Patrick Nazon.
Feillu is generous and friendly, he loves his sport more than the average cyclist. "I've always wanted to do this as a job," he said. "I remember when I went to school I told everybody that I wanted to become a professional cyclist. I knew everything about the riders, their bikes and equipments. I didn't become what I'm now by coincidence." Feillu has a great will to succeed; therefore he never minds some more training sessions and all the sacrifices that come with the life of a dedicated athlete.
But seven years earlier, Feillu's dreams of one day sprinting in his home Grand Tour were nearly shattered. While returning home from school on his scooter, the then teenager was hit by a car whose driver failed to give way at a stop sign. Feillu was left with a broken femur and the plate doctors had to insert prevented his left leg from growing as fast as the right one, leaving a difference of 20 millimetres between the two leg's lengths.
The youngster quickly realized the two centimetre difference would be a handicap for his career - one he wasn't willing to lay down and accept. Feillu carried out some research on the internet and found a specialized doctor in Marseille who could operate on his leg to correct the problem. The cost of the operation however was quite high for a teenager, 8000 Euros. Determined to accomplish his dream, Feillu continued to race and saved all his prize money to pay for the operation. The first of five very complicated operations to fix his leg length was done in 2004, when he was 20 years-old.
"Because of that, I've had to be patient before turning pro," explained Feillu. "That's why I'm maybe a little more motivated than the other guys. I like fighting on a bike. In the sprints I don't give way to anybody." Feillu is unquestionably ambitious. About 12 months ago, prior to his first professional season, he told former CC Nogent-sur-Oise team-mate Guillaume Levarlet of his ambitions for this year. "For my first season I want to win between two and five races, I want to take part in the Tour de France and the World Championship" he said at the time. Amazed by such a speech, Levarlet asked Feillu to repeat it and he recorded it on his mobile phone.
Levarlet, who will ride for Française des Jeux in 2008, still had the comment on his phone when Feillu won Paris-Bourges on October 11. After the Tour of Britain, where Feillu claimed the general classification, his tally of wins had hit four. By comparison to the Frenchman that came before him, at least in recent times, Feillu's neo-professional victories stack up well. Laurent Fignon and Frédéric Moncassin also won four races in their first professional season, but Laurent Jalabert got only three. While some would be flattered by the comparison, Feillu doesn't get a big head over the fact. "I only fulfilled my goal," he observed.
It wasn't just the victories that have made Feillu happy with his accomplishments. He was 10th and best Frenchman in Paris-Tours, a race where he learned a lot and promised to return one day to win.
Even with the Paris-Tours result, Feillu went further in search of more improvement during the season. Despite starting his season in January, Feillu rode all the way through to October 21, when he contested the Chrono des Nations. The race is a high-level time trial where he managed to post an average speed of 44km/h against the kings of the specialty, despite marking it as one of his areas of weakness. "I know that I have to improve my time trialing for winning stage races in the future," he observed.
Feillu might have started his career a little bit later than other riders, but the speedy Frenchman is already making up for lost time.