By Jean-François Quénet in Adelaide, Australia
Française des Jeux is close to winning the teams' classification at the Tour Down Under for a second year in a row, but the team spirit inside the French squad seems to have increased even more in 2009. At the end of every stage you can see the riders wearing the four-leaf clover jerseys gathering and talking briefly about their race prior to rejoining their team support van. They are close to each other in the standings as well having successfully passed the test of Willunga Hill with Jérémy Roy finishing fifth, Wesley Sulzberger seventh, Jussi Veikkanen 11th and Mikaël Chérel 15th.
"With these seven guys here in Australia, we form a group of people happy to live and race together," Chérel explained. "The environment in Adelaide also helps a lot for the common happiness. We felt like coming for a holiday and that has been beneficial for our team spirit. We focused on the race to perfection. It's significant to lead the teams' classification, it shows that we're all going well, but we would have enjoyed a stage win, too."
Française des Jeux leads the team classification despite losing Rémy Di Gregorio and Tim Gudsell in a crash during stage three. The New Zealander reported a collarbone broken in four parts and he'll be out of racing for the next two months.
Most of Française des Jeux's riders have in common a university degree. "We actually don't talk about cycling together when we get off the bike," said Chérel, who was hoping to win the best young rider classification. José Joaquin Rojas from Caisse d'Epargne leads Chérel by 10 seconds entering the final stage.
If the general classification remains the same after the last stage, Veikkanen and Chérel will score their first world ranking points in the classification based on the ProTour and the historical races. "In my case it might already secure a spot on the start line for my country at the world championship," said Veikkanen, the champion of Finland.
Another high point for Française des Jeux at the Tour Down Under is the integration of neo-pro Wesley Sulzberger into the squad. The Tasmanian rookie has brought the Aussie fighting spirit back into the French team. 2008 was the only season for Marc Madiot's outfit without an Australian since 1998 following the departure of Bradley McGee after those of Baden Cooke, Matt Wilson and Mark Renshaw. "Everything is really organized in this team," Sulzberger said. "I went to France for a training camp in December and everybody was overly friendly with me and tried to help me speak some words of French. Since we arrived in Adelaide everybody has good morale."
Chérel was the first Française des Jeux rider to tell Madiot the team should sign Sulzberger after Wesley's first race as a stagiaire at Paris-Corrèze in August. "I don't regret my words because we really get on well together," said Chérel, the former French junior champion.
After the departure of Philippe Gilbert to Silence-Lotto, Madiot motivated the young riders left in the team by saying, "There's space for you guys, take your chance." The core of riders travelling together to Adelaide seems to have picked up on the message.
"I feel there is more to be seen this year," said Madiot, talking from Paris. "At our training camp there was a great competitive spirit from all the riders." Matthieu Ladagnous has already paved the way for a good season by winning the Tour of Gabon.