Jacky Durand had seen more or less everything a professional bike rider could possibly see by the time a callow young Englishman joined his Française des Jeux team ahead of the 2002 season, but he still didn’t know quite what to make of Bradley Wiggins.
“I remember that he was able to tell me the kind of shoes I’d been wearing when I won the Tour of Flanders in 1992,” Durand tells Cyclingnews. “I was a bit taken aback by that, to be honest.”
By the time Wiggins lined up for his first taste of the cobbles as a professional at Het Volk a few weeks later, the team had decided to place him under Durand’s wing, assigning the veteran to be his roommate. If Wiggins was hoping for some reassuring counsel on the eve of battle, however, he was to be disappointed.
On turning in for an early night, he found that Durand was not, as he might have imagined, lying with his feet up with an eye to the following day’s race, but rather had absconded from the hotel in search of Ghent’s nightlife. According to Wiggins’ version of events, Durand didn’t return until 6am yet still mustered up the energy to infiltrate the early break at Het Volk.
“It’s possible, it’s possible,” Durand laughs, neither confirming nor denying Wiggins’ precise timeline. “But I also remember that Bradley abandoned that Het Volk early. It was a wet one, so that evening I said, ‘Ok young man, now you can go and clean my shoes for Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne tomorrow.’ And as far as I remember, he went and did it.”
A common interest in the state of Durand’s shoes was not the only way in which the ice was broken. “I liked good beers at the time and so did he, at least during the training camps at the start of the year. We also had to do a cyclo-cross training camp with Marc Madiot, which was something Bradley really didn’t like at all, but he still went and did it,” says Durand. (Now a commentator with Eurosport, Durand’s was the swiftest mea culpa when the French Senate report into doping was published two years ago. “Everyone from my generation was full of bullshit,” he said.)
Video footage of Wiggins tumbling from his cyclo-cross bike was dredged up around the time of his 2012 Tour de France victory, and despite his insistence that Paris-Roubaix was the race of his dreams, FDJ’s elder statesmen such as Durand and 1997 winner Frédéric Guesdon were not convinced.
“Even after he left and went on the win the Tour de France, I would never have thought of him as a Paris-Roubaix winner,” admits Guesdon, now a directeur sportif at the team, while Durand recalls Wiggins’ ambition being the source of considerable mirth around the dinner table at FDJ.
“Of course we made fun of him. We’d say, ‘What are you saying, trackie? What you going to do there with your big legs and your long femurs? If you fall off you’ll fall for miles, it’s not possible.’ Stuff like that,” Durand says. “We teased him about it quite a bit, but he had a real passion for these races. He knew all the history of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.”
Yet though Wiggins knew his history, he showed little obvious aptitude for the pavé during his time at La Française des Jeux and he was a non-finisher in his Paris-Roubaix debut in 2003. Fabian Cancellara’s first visit to Hell that year also ended prematurely, of course, but within three years he would reach the velodrome as the winner. Wiggins’ journey to relevance at Roubaix, by contrast, would take more than a decade.
Road to Roubaix
Both Durand and Guesdon are in agreement that Wiggins did not strike them as a classics star in the making during his two-year sojourn at Française des Jeux – nor, indeed, did they anticipate that he would one day make such radical changes to his physique as to be able to climb mountain passes and win the Tour de France.
“We knew he was going to be successful on the road, but I never imagined he was going to win the Tour de France. I could picture him winning all the time trials at the Tour de France, yes, but winning the Tour? No,” Durand says. “And winning Paris-Roubaix? Well, up until last year, I would have said it was impossible. But now I’d say – why not?”
Durand’s skepticism of twelve months ago was based not just on impressions formed during Wiggins’ early years as a professional, but also on his apparent refusal to commit fully to his Paris-Roubaix preparations last year. He eschewed the early cobbled races in favour of riding the Volta a Catalunya, parachuting into Sky’s classics unit just in time for the Tour of Flanders.
“He did virtually no races in Belgium, basically just the Tour of Flanders before Paris-Roubaix, and you need to ride these races to get used to the pavé,” Durand says. “This year he’s done quite a few races in Belgium to get ready. I watched him at the Three Days of De Panne and he was always positioned near the front, and was up there on all the bergs and I understand there that, yes, we can count on him to be good at Paris-Roubaix this year.”
“He did a fine Paris-Roubaix last year and that’s a big benefit to him this time around,” Guesdon agrees. “He has the physique for it, too, and the desire, so he’s capable of winning Roubaix some year – and, well, it’s this year or never, isn’t it? Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won it.”
Wiggins is adamant that Paris-Roubaix suits him in ways that the Tour of Flanders, E3 Harelbeke et al do not, maintaining that the long, steady efforts on Roubaix’s pavé are reminiscent of a pursuit, unlike the staccato rhythm to racing in Flanders, while the battle for positions in France is supposedly less fraught.
“In Flanders, you can lose everything in the space of one berg, but in Roubaix, even if you’re not perfectly-placed in the first sectors, that’s ok, it’s not a catastrophe. You can work your way back up between the sectors, so that’s certainly an advantage for him,” Guesdon says. “He’ll be more at ease in Roubaix than Flanders.”
Durand, however, is not convinced that the fundamentals of the two monuments are as far removed as Wiggins likes to pretend. “Ok, the pavé sectors last for longer than the cobbled hills, but for me, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are the same thing: there’s a bit of battling for positions for about 20 or 30 kilometres but then the natural selection starts to make itself felt and the stronger riders come to the front. With 60 or 70 kilometres to go, the jostling stops because the strongest riders are in front and those who are less good are already behind.”
The fact that Wiggins, an early faller, was among those caught behind by that juncture at the Tour of Flanders last Sunday hardly augurs well for his Paris-Roubaix, though Durand notes that mind-set is nine-tenths of the law in such situations.
“When he’s not in the mood, then everything starts to annoy him and maybe he doesn’t commit, but if he’s really up for it and feeling good, then he’ll battle for position as and when he needs to, like we saw in De Panne,” Durand says. “On top of that, he’s respected in the peloton too. If Wiggins wants to move up, other riders are going to let him through. That kind of respect will allow him to gain a few places.”
The absence of Cancellara and Tom Boonen through injury removes two of the greatest obstacles between Wiggins and Paris-Roubaix victory, but while Durand believes his former teammate has the engine to last the distance, he is not convinced that he has the turn of speed necessary to go on the offensive.
“It’s a less explosive race that Flanders, sure, but if Wiggins wants to win Roubaix, he’s still going to have to have to show some explosiveness, maybe at the Carrefour de l’Arbre, because there are some riders he just has to get rid of,” Durand says. “If he ends up in a sprint in the velodrome, then I think he’s likely to come up against two or three riders who are quicker than him. I know he knows the track well, but this isn’t an individual pursuit and well, the Roubaix velodrome isn’t really a track – it’s still more of a sprint for road riders.”
Speaking to reporters ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, however, Wiggins described Guesdon’s 1997 Paris-Roubaix victory as an example of how the Roubaix velodrome didn’t necessarily suit the sprinters either. On that occasion, Guesdon wound up a huge gear and came from the back of a seven-man group on the final lap to upset recognised fast men such as Johan Museeuw, Jo Planckaert and Frédéric Moncassin.
“A sprint at Roubaix is different, it’s very open,” Guesdon says. “If you’ve got any turn of speed at all, you can win it. When you get there after 260 kilometres – well, anything is possible on that velodrome.”