When Bryan Coquard (Vital Concept-B&B Hotels) rivalled Marcel Kittel in one of the closest photo finishes the Tour de France has seen, it seemed as if the diminutive Frenchman, although ultimately not victorious, had signalled his arrival among the top tier of the world's best sprinters. That was 2016, though, and Coquard's career has since stalled. Having won 13 races in the six months before that Tour, he has only won nine races in the 32 months since it.
Early in 2017 Coquard told his Direct Energie boss Jean-Rene Bernaudeau that he was going to move on at the end of the year, and the fall-out was brutal, with Coquard out of favour and ultimately not selected for the Tour de France. Bernaudeau insisted performances weren't good enough, but Coquard's mother claimed the team were "destroying him psychologically".
Speaking to Cyclingnews at the recent Tour of Oman, Coquard revealed it took him a year to get over the whole affair, with his confidence shot to pieces. That was a factor in a hugely disappointing first season with the brand-new Vital Concept team, where the pressure of leadership further hampered his performances.
After a long, hard look in the mirror, Coquard insists he is back to his old self in 2019 and ready to reach his potential. He lines out at Paris-Nice today, which he describes as the biggest week of his season. It could decide the team's fate in July, with three French Pro Continental teams battling for the remaining two Tour de France wildcards.
Here's what Coquard had to say about his past struggles and hopes for the future.
Cyclingnews: 2018 seemed like a tough season for you. How do you look back on it?
Bryan Coquard: It was a new team, and it was difficult to have the leadership role all on my own. There was a lot of expectation surrounding the new team and that meant a lot of pressure for me. Vital Concept Cycling Club was, for many, Bryan Coquard, and when I wasn't going well it reflected on the whole team.
I was also involved in the foundations of the project and I got a little lost in that. I was thinking about the organisation of the team, how to make things work well, and I wasn't really focusing enough on my riding. Then I tried to work on progressing in the Classics, and trying to climb better, but it was to the detriment of my sprint. So I was weaker in that regard, and had fewer victories, and therefore less confidence, and it just ended up being a difficult season.
CN: To what extent did you lose confidence in yourself?
BC: At the start of last season, the team was working very well and I won in Oman, but it was my only win before May. A sprinter needs to win often, and I wasn't competitive in lots of sprints, and I lost confidence in myself.
It's surprising for a sprinter. I surprised myself, actually, that I was scared of other sprinters, telling myself that I wasn't as fast as them and that I couldn't beat them. Whereas before in my career, I'd never had that, even though I obviously knew there were very strong sprinters, but I'd say to myself, 'yeah, if things go well I can win'. In the end, it was complicated. I wasn't in a winning dynamic. I was fearful, and that wasn't good.
CN: Can the loss in confidence be linked to the fall-out with Bernaudeau?
BC: Yes, I think so. That hurt me. In my head, things weren't going so well anymore and it became complicated.
CN: So it took longer than expected to leave behind?
BC: Yes. It took a year, I reckon. All last year I was no longer confident, no longer sure of myself, of my ability. It took a lot of time to overcome all that, psychologically. But I think that makes you mature and develop.
CN: Do you feel better now?
BC: Yes, I think I'm more like I was before. I'm harder on myself and my teammates, more demanding about everything, and that has made a difference and helped me grow. And also I tell myself that I have a good job, I'm lucky to have the abilities I do, I enjoy racing my bike, and I have to make the most of it.
CN: How did you hit the re-set button?
BC: It was after the season had finished. During the season you're too involved to draw conclusions. But after ending the season and going on holiday I was able to look back on the season and reflect with a cool head. I said to myself, 'Ok, last season wasn't good enough, but you have to bounce back'. And voila, I worked on myself, I reflected a lot, listed out the positives and negatives, what went well and what didn't, and what I needed to do to rediscover my old self.
CN: How are you feeling physically?
BC: For the moment, things are going well. I feel I've rediscovered my 'jump'. Last year I was sprinting more through force, but this year I'm more zippy. In that respect, the track has helped me a lot. It had been a long time since I'd done track. I'd always done it when I was younger and going back this year helped me refocus on my qualities and get my jump back. At the end of 2015 I did track all winter, I was Madison world champion, and then 2016 was my best year on the road, and I think it was linked.
CN: What are your main objectives in 2019?
BC: I want to have a good Paris-Nice. I think that's the number one objective. Then we'll see about the rest of the season. We're still not sure about all the races we'll be doing. It depends on the wildcards.
CN: The Tour de France is the big one, obviously. Are you confident?
BC: You never now, but as I see it we've had a good start to the season as a team. Everyone has been up there on all terrain - Cyril Gautier was strong in Provence, I was second in Oman, Quentin Pacher was top 10 overall - so I think we've got a good team.
CN: Could success at Paris-Nice, a fellow ASO-run WorldTour race, be the clincher?
BC: It's possible, but I prefer to look at it differently. I don't want to say that I want to win in order to go to the Tour; I want to win for myself, because Paris-Nice is a great race and I've finished second a couple of times but never won there.
CN: It's between you, Arkea-Samsic, and Direct Energie. How disappointed will you be if you don't get in?
BC: Of course, I'll be disappointed if we don't make it. ASO have said it's down to sporting criteria, so if we're not at the Tour it means we haven't been good enough. It's complicated for ASO, but I think it was the right call to say 'we're going to wait, and teams that perform the best go to the Tour de France. That's a good solution. The aim is to be good on the bike, post some good results, and if we do that I think we'll have good news for July.
CN: What Classics will you do this year?
BC: I'm going to do Amstel. With the new course, I don't know if it suits me better or not. I really liked the Cauberg before. Now, it's complicated for me because the race kicks off much earlier. Nevertheless, you often see a big group arrive not far behind the winner so I'm telling myself that one year it could work. As for the cobbles, I'll just do Dwars door Vlaanderen. We're not invited to Gent-Wevelgem.
CN: You're out of contract at the end of the year. Are you committed to this project or are you attracted by WorldTour teams and their race programmes?
BC: I'm happy here, I feel good. If we have good invites, then yes, I'm happy at Pro Continental level. Next year the system is going to change, with the points and invitations and everything, so I think if you're among the best Pro Conti teams then invitations will be easier to come by and it will be a lot better. It's up to us, the riders, to be good, and if we get results we'll get invitations. There's not a great need to be WorldTour team, if you're doing the big races you love.