By Daniel Friebe, Procycling Features Editor, in Kortrijk, Belgium
Quick-Step's most high-profile winter signing, Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, says that he's relishing the prospect of his first season outside a French team. Chavanel, who left Cofidis in the autumn after his most successful campaign to date, believes that a "more targeted" and "perhaps more effective approach" to racing could see him make a further breakthrough in 2009.
Speaking to Procycling at Quick-Step's official team presentation in Kortrijk, Belgium, last week, Chavanel said that both he and compatriot Jérôme Pineau had already settled well in their new environment. At the same event last Friday, Tom Boonen, claimed that he'd never seen his team looking so united.
Chavanel also revealed that he'd been impressed by what he'd seen of his team-mates at Quick-Step's pre-season training camps in Calpe and Benicàssim in Spain.
"I've started my intensity work a bit later, so in the first few races maybe I won't be quite as good, although I do feel better than last year," he said. "Here, though, when we went up a climb at the last training camp, we went hard, but at the top there were still 15 riders together. I won't mention any names, but if you do that in another team, you'll be on your own at the top! The level's a lot higher here. You only have to look at what this team usually does at the Tour de Qatar: they win everything!"
The emphatic winner of two Belgian semi-Classics last year, Chavanel said that he'd compete both on the cobbles of Flanders and in the Ardennes this term. Asked whether, in light of his outstanding results on Flandrian roads in 2008, he perhaps rues not moving to a Belgium squad earlier in his career, Chavanel borrowed the famous phrase of an illustrious countrywoman, Edith Piaf: "Je ne regrette rien".
"I could have joined this team earlier, but I don't have too many regrets," he commented. "That's because, when I turned pro, I said to myself that I really wanted to break through at the age of 27 or 28 years old. Now I'm 29, and I'm coming off a very good season. I'd rather be a rider who improves from year to year than someone who's already won everything. I still have everything to prove, and that's very motivating.
Whatever their results this season, there's no doubt that Chavanel and Pineau's departure has left French domestic teams looking very low on internationally-proven talent. It was almost inevitable, therefore, that Chavanel's views would be sought on the best of the rest who have stayed in France.
"There are very good French riders," he argued. "I'm thinking of a guy like Pierrick Fédrigo, who's definitely got one of the biggest engines in the French peloton. Jérôme Pineau and I do perhaps stand out, along with three or four others. Jérôme told me that he was out of contract, and that's when I suggested he come with me. It wouldn't have been easy to be the only Frenchman in a Flemish team. It helps my integration.
"I would have liked my brother, Sébastien, to come, as well. We spoke about it on the phone, but he signed with Française des Jeux very early. You also have to bear in mind that we already have Boonen here. Sébastien can do well where he is but he needs people to help him; at the moment, he's always on his own in the sprints."