Armirail: If you're the leader, there's nowhere to hide

Groupama-FDJ youngster on battling back from serious injury

Almost four years ago, Bruno Armirail suffered a serious knee fracture after having been hit by a car while out training ahead of the 2015 season. Having recovered and secured a two-year contract last year with WorldTour outfit Groupama-FDJ, the Frenchman is looking to build on a successful first year with the team, and to put the past behind him.

In January 2015, and about to start his first season with the Equipe Cycliste Armée de Terre – the now defunct French Army-sponsored Continental team – Armirail was training in Liévin, close to Lens, in northern France, when he was hit by a vehicle.

"A car coming in the opposite direction lost control and skidded into me on a corner," Armirail explained in an interview on the Groupama-FDJ website. "It was going fast, and I suffered a triple fracture of the patella.

"When I returned to riding in late May 2015, I was happy to be back on my bike, but felt as though I had to train hard to try to make up for lost time, which wasn't the best way to do things. It was my first year at pro level, and I hadn't even done my first race," said Armirail.

That first race back was the French national championship road race in June. "I lasted 50 kilometres," said Armirail, who was the under-23 national time trial champion in 2014.

It wasn't until late 2016 and early 2017 that he began to feel himself again, having dropped back down to the amateur ranks for the 2017 season.

Strong showings at the Tour de Gironde, where Armirail won the mountains classification, and sixth at the elite national time trial championships earned him a stagiaire position with FDJ in August 2017, and subsequently a full-time contract.

"I'm pretty happy because everyone tells me I had a good season," Armirail said of his first year at Groupama-FDJ. "If I have one regret, it's that I wasn't able to win the time trial at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes. I came close, but I crashed, having been only two seconds behind [teammate and stage winner] Arnaud Démare when I fell."

Armirail remounted to finish 35th, and went on to finish third with now-retired teammate Jérémy Roy at two-man time trial the Duo Normand a month later.

Other highlights for him include strong showings at both the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco in April and June's Critérium du Dauphiné, "despite not really being a climber".

Armirail said that for the time being he's happy to ride in the service of others, and this season helped teammate Marc Sarreau take two stage wins at the Etoile de Bessèges and one at the 4 Jours de Dunkerque, and was part of Démare's clean-sweep at Poitou-Charentes in August, where the French sprinter won all five stages and, unsurprisingly, the overall title.

"I prefer riding for others than having my own opportunities," Armirail admitted. "If you're the leader, there's nowhere to hide. There's a lot less pressure when you're working as a teammate.

"Right now, I've not got the right mentality to be a leader," he continued. "That may change in three, four or five years' time. We'll see. But for now I'm simply not able to be in the mix after 200 kilometres of racing."

Armirail's abilities against the clock, however, mean that the 24-year-old could find himself in the position of leader by virtue of winning a prologue or opening-stage time trial.

"Then it would be all about what the profiles of the following stages looked like," he said. "But if I was ever to wear a leader's jersey, it'd be something to celebrate."

Armirail said that he hopes to be able to ride a Grand Tour in 2019, but knows that it won't be up to him in a team where competition for places at the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España is fierce.

"If the team thinks I'm ready, then they'll tell me. This past year, I've mainly been doing French Cup races and [shorter] stage races," he said. "I'd love to try riding the Classics, but I'm not a great fighter, and am not always able to position myself where I'd like to be in the bunch.

"I don't have what it takes to be a leader in those kinds of races, either, and would just use up too much energy attempting to fight for position," he admitted. "I still have bad memories of the accident, and of having had to suffer through three years of injury. I sought help from people [medical professionals] to try to get over it."

In times of doubt since his accident, Armirail has simply willed himself to progress.

"Even when I was struggling, I told myself that I was going to get there [to the pro level]," he said. "It's just how I am. My parents are farmers, and so I know what it feels like to struggle to live.

"When I had the accident, everyone forgot about me – the French Army team and the national team, too. I wasn't able to ride for a long time, and lost a lot of muscle. I lost my explosiveness, and I still haven't regained it completely. I still have pain in my knee, but I've come a long way," said Armirail.

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