News Feature, February 2, 2008
The 2008 la Française des Jeux team was presented to the media and a select group of fans in the Pavillon d'Armenonville, in Paris' Bois de Boulogne. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins was there to witness the self-proclaimed "France's most popular team" unveiled.
La Française des Jeux is France's national lottery, and has been sponsoring a top-level cycling team since 1997, and has been supporting sport in France for over thirty years. Because of this link to the lottery, the team is in essence financed by public money, and because of this la Française des Jeux sees itself as the people's team.
The theme for 2008 is "Passion de...," whether it's for winning, supporting or taking part. As well as the cycling team, la Française des Jeux is also heavily involved in its own fan club, which gives rise to its claim to be France's most popular team, in fact many of the club's members had been invited to today's presentation. On top of this engagement with fans of professional cycling, the sponsor is also becoming more and more involved in encouraging the public's participation in cycling: organising Cht'i Ventoux, a ride from Valenciennes in the north to the climb of the great Provençal giant, Mont Ventoux. From 2008, la Française des Jeux will also become one of the main sponsors of France's biggest cyclosportif event, l'Ardechoise, an event that attracts tens of thousands of participants each year.
Proceedings were opened by Christophe Blanchard-Dignac, President-Directeur Général of la Française des Jeux. He spoke at length about the history of the team, the beautiful successes of 2007 – especially the fact that Sandy Casar finally managed a victory at the Tour de France, despite being brought down by a dog wandering on to the course midway through the stage.
La Française des Jeux has the youngest average age of all the ProTour teams, something that makes Blanchard-Dignac very proud. The investment in young riders and their futures means that the average la Française des Jeux rider is just 25 years old. As well as this he is also proud that – as the sponsor is effectively the French public – the 27-strong team roster contains 20 Frenchmen. Important for the French team as 2008 is an Olympic year.
Blanchard-Dignac also spoke at length on the subject of doping, but in a very favourable way: that La Française des Jeux was one of the founding teams of the Movement for a Creditable Cycling (MPCC), five of the team's riders are members of Athletes For Transparency (AFT) and that Sandy Casar was the first person to sign the UCI's anti-doping charter last year. He also emphasised that cycling was by no means the only sport with doping issues. Doping is, he said, endemic in all sports, but cycling is the only one that carries the stigma.
To further the fight against doping in the sport, a proportion of the budget – as is the case with most teams – goes towards the anti-doping cause.
Monsieur Blanchard-Dignac then introduced the team's Directeur Sportif, a man who has been at the forefront of the battle to clean up the sport. Marc Madiot has recently been made a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur – the highest award in France and the equivalent of a knighthood in the United Kingdom. As Blanchard-Dignac introduced Madiot he described him simply with the words: "Champion, Patriot, Legateur."
In his introduction, Madiot echoed the themes of the President of la Française des Jeux, affirming his belief in the fight against doping in the sport. He singled out the early retirement last year of Carlos Da Cruz, who, while by no means particularly young at 33, quit the sport in a certain amount of disgust feeling that he was a member of France's "wasted generation." Many felt that French riders adhered to certain standards which riders of other nations did not, leading to the claim that there was cyclisme à deux vitesses ('cycling at two speeds'). This claim is often used to justify the fact that French riders have rarely won any of the big races for many years. Da Cruz was present in the crowd and took an ovation as he stood up.
Madiot moved on to sporting matters. 2007 had been a great year for the team, as well as Casar's win at the Tour de France there had been many fantastic results, especially given the average age of the team. 2008 is to be an even better year, with an improved roster and another year's experience under the riders' belts. La Française des Jeux currently possesses two French national champions: Benoît Vaugrenard in the time trial and Francis Mourey in cyclo-cross. The team has already seem a winning start to the year as Lilian Jégou won the overall at La Tropicale Amissa Bongo Ondimba (Tour du Gabon), a part of its overall message of spreading the message of cycling and participation in sport.
After introducing his team of assistant directeurs, Madiot announced that he had a small surprise for us all. Instead of the riders being called to the stage as we might have expected, the curtain at the rear of the stage was lifted, revealing all 27 riders in a "natural" tableau. Some stood; others sat; some reading newspapers; some discussing the pieces of cycling equipment that they were holding.
Nine riders left the team at the end of last year, including Australian Bradley McGee and the retiring Da Cruz, but nine new riders have been signed to keep the roster's number constant. Of those nine, three are neo-professionals: Jérôme Coppel, Yoann Offredo and Anthony Roux. Yoann Le Boulanger has been brought in from Bouygues Telecom, Gianni Meersman from the disbanding Discovery Channel team, but all the others have been signed from lower division teams.
Madiot called the riders forward individually, said a few words about each one, and asked them a question about the piece of kit that they were carrying and what they hoped to achieve this season. Casar was first to be called – as they were introduced alphabetically – and he was greeted with applause and a small ripple of laughter as he presented his Elite bidon. The rest of the team were called forward – most with a piece of team equipment, some without. Rémy Di Gregorio is France's latest climbing sensation who won the mountains classification at last year's Dauphiné Libéré, but had to miss the Tour de France through injury. He brought on a bottle of Christaline mineral water and demonstrated its properties by sprinkling some on the fake grass surface of the stage.
Once all the riders had been introduced individually – including Classics captain Philippe Gilbert, who brought a wheel with him, and Mathieu Ladagnous who brought a complete time trial bike – they formed up at the front of the stage to be photographed. This marked the end of the formal proceedings and the team went off to get changed before returning where the almost entirely French media were set upon them.
For the full roster, see the Cyclingnews' teams database.