Sylvain Chavanel’s debut campaign with IAM Cycling has not even started in earnest, and already the first victory of the season has arrived in the form of an invitation to the Tour de France. The acquisition of the former French champion made that wildcard something of a formality, but even so, it was a welcome boost to Chavanel ahead of his debut in IAM colours at the Grand Prix d’Ouverture La Marseillaise on Sunday.
“To find out this early in the season is good for everybody involved, and it helps us to plan for the Tour and work towards it in the right way,” Chavanel told Cyclingnews over the phone earlier in the week, after a day spent reconnoitring the final time trial of the Tour from Bergerac to Périgueux at the behest of the local organising committee.
“It’s close to where I live and I’m the ambassador for the stage in Bergerac,” he explained. “I went and had a look today, and a lot of people came out just for the recon and that’s very heartening.”
With three Tour stage wins and two days in the maillot jaune already on his palmarès, Chavanel can approach July unfettered by pressure, with the freedom to enjoy and animate the race in equal measure. “Exactly, I have no need to go there with a burden my shoulders for the general classification or whatever else,” he said. “I’ll go there to maybe try to wear the yellow jersey early on, or win stages.”
The month of April is a different proposition, however, and Chavanel would be forgiven for feeling that he has unfinished business with the spring classics after his agonising second place at the 2011 Tour of Flanders and a string of best supporting actor nominations but no monument victory of his own during his time as a mainstay of QuickStep’s ensemble cast.
“I would like to win a big classic, but I’ve come up against the likes of Cancellara, Sagan and Boonen,” Chavanel said. “I’ve been second at the Tour of Flanders and 4th at Milan-San Remo. I’ve been very competitive in the classics for the last seven years, but I’ve also been up there in other kinds of events, like time trials and week-long stage races.”
Indeed, Chavanel’s vocation for life on the cobbles was a late one – he only took holy orders, as it were, in 2008, his final year at Cofidis, when he won Dwars door Vlaanderen. It would be understandable, then, if Chavanel harboured regrets that he had not channelled his energies towards the classics earlier in his career, but he says that is not the case.
“I don’t regret anything in my career because now I’m entering into my 15th season as a professional, and if I can do 20 years as a professional, that would already be something big. Of course, you want to win races, but you also want your career to be as long as possible, and I’m pleased with the consistency and the enjoyment I’ve had over the years.”
When Chavanel crumbled in a heap on a pavement in Meerbeke immediately after losing out by inches to Nick Nuyens at that 2011 Ronde, unable to speak due to a combination of exhaustion and disappointment, he seemed an embodiment of the bleakest despair, but he insists that such disappointments are quickly put behind him.
“We’re already privileged with the life we have as riders, and I have an extraordinary wife and children, so I’m aware that there are things more important than the bike. I try to keep things in perspective and maintain the enjoyment I get from cycling, something that you can very easily lose at a certain level,” he said.
While Chavanel’s arrival at IAM Cycling after five years in the court of Tom Boonen was viewed by many as a declaration of his desire to head up a squad of his own at the spring classics, the 34-year-old is reticent to lay any such claims upon team leadership.
“Yes, there were some big champions like Tom Boonen at QuickStep but you can’t forget that I’m coming to race for a team that already has some very good classics riders too, like Heinrich Haussler, for instance,” he said. “We’ll both be protected riders in the big monuments, but I’m not sure if it will be that different [to my role at QuickStep.]
“Besides, I don’t like cycling where you have a whole team sacrificing itself for one rider. I think you can have a few riders protecting a leader but there’s no need to hold back an entire team to do it. Ok, when your name is Fabian Cancellara and you’re carrying the entire weight of the race, that’s completely different.
“But in our case, we’re dangerous riders, sure, but we will ride in a different way to the big teams. QuickStep was the number one team in the world for the classics, and would often have to control the race, but we won’t be in that position with IAM.”
Sunday’s Grand Prix de l’Ouverture La Marseillaise marks the formal beginning of Chavanel’s season and his time at IAM Cycling, but in reality, the Frenchman barely paused for breath when his 2013 campaign came to an end. Rather than take the usual two or three-week break, Chavanel was never away from the bike for more than three or four days at a time for the whole winter, and regularly lined up in local cyclo-cross races in November and December for good measure.
“The older I get, the shorter my breaks at the end of the season have become, partly because with age, it takes longer for your body to get back into the right condition when you stop,” he said. “This year, I just took some small breaks of three and four days without riding the bike, rather than one long break. I’m not sure if it will be beneficial, but I hope so, because I have good sensations in training.”
As well as the physical benefits of his cyclo-cross regimen, Chavanel enjoyed the relaxed ambience of events at a considerable remove from the white heat and madding crowds of the Tour in July. Indeed, his February race programme will see him continue in that tone, preferring the frigid air but warm applause of the Tour of the Mediterranean to the desert heat and empty roadsides of Qatar and Oman.
“I enjoyed doing cyclo-cross during the winter, it was a bit of cycling à l’ancienne – old-style, you know? By riding at small races like that through the winter, I had more contact with the public,” Chavanel explained. “It was so different to what you have at the Tour, for instance, where everybody sits on the bus until the last minute before going to sign on. There’s a certain charm to riding these small races over the winter, and just spending time with people.”