Bryan Coquard will be spending July eating Merguez, after all. At the Criterium du Dauphine, the French sprinter joked about how he hoped he wouldn't be spending July barbequeing sausages. But while he might not have fully believed Direct Energie team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau's threats to leave him out of the Tour de France, the reality came crashing home on Monday when the final line-up was announced.
"I'm very disappointed. I really wanted to be part of the gang. I'm very sad, really emotional. It really meant so much to me to do the Tour de France," Coquard said, giving his reaction exclusively to the Ouest France newspaper.
Coquard, the team's leader and prized young talent, came within a whisker of winning a stage at the Tour de France last year, but doubts about his participation this year emerged when he told his team he wanted to pursue his career elsewhere from 2018.
Having come through the team's amateur set-up, Coquard said Bernaudeau felt "betrayed" and "hurt", yet the long-standing manager has defended his approach, saying it was a "purely sporting choice" to leave Coquard at home. At the Dauphiné, he put out the slightly absurd ultimatum that Coquard had to win, or beat Arnaud Démare, to prove himself worthy of a spot at the Tour, and Coquard hasn't been able to deliver.
"At the start of the season, Bryan was very strong and he was, logically, the leader of the team, but it’s been several weeks now that he has done nothing," Bernaudeau told Le Parisien on Tuesday.
"At the Critérium du Dauphiné he didn't even trouble Arnaud Démare in the sprints. And at the French nationals on Sunday he wasn't even able to stay on Démare's wheel. That was the instruction given to him. At some point you have to be objective and look at who is good and who isn't.
"If Coquard had, in the last two months, beaten Démare once, or at least proven that he could beat him, we'd have made a different decision. The Tour is reserved for the best. Bryan is not part of that club at the moment. That's all."
Yet Coquard, even if not at his best – and he had said he was guarding his June form so as to be fresher throughout the Tour – would still, as team veteran Thomas Voeckler pointed out to Cyclingnews recently, represents the team's best shot at success in July.
Cutting off his nose to spite his face
The new team is built around breakaway men like Voeckler, Sylvain Chavanel, and a debut for the promising Lilian Calmejane, but there is still room for Thomas Boudat and Adrien Petit, two riders who ordinarily work for Coquard in the sprints.
There's no getting away from the suspicion that Bernaudeau is cutting off his nose to spite his face, though he insists emotions haven't clouded his decision-making.
"It's the media, who have invented this 'fit of anger'," he said in response to Le Parisien. "I'm 61 years old, I run a business, and you think I make decisions on a fit of anger? I repeat: leaving Coquard out is a sporting choice."
Coquard certainly doesn't see the sense of the decision. He has been the team's chief bread-winner in the past four seasons, and despite not matching his pre-Tour tally from last year, he still has four wins to his name this term this season.
"Yes, of course I'm angry with him. I don't feel I've made an error since the start of the season. I've done nothing wrong. I've done everything to be in shape since the start of the season," said Coquard, even suggesting that Bernaudeau's attitude in the past month or so has contributed to his sub-par performances.
"Since mid-May, when I told him I was leaving, things started to change. I don't think you can do great things on the bike when you're not 100 per cent on the inside. I thought I was stronger than that. I thought I was going to overcome it. But no. Subconsciously, that really affected me, but I never showed it. I was on the limit, my body was on the limit."
The worst moment, and surely the precursor to the final Tour decision, came at the French nationals on Sunday, where Bernadeau told his team to ride for Petit, not Coquard, who was duly dropped as the team blew up the race in the crosswinds, only for the Classics-suited Démare to mop up at the end.
"They're in the process of destroying him psychologically," Coquard’s mother told L'Equipe after the race.
Coquard, Merguez jokes aside, must now take stock and reassess what to do with his season, with transfer negotiations one priority. He says that first of all he will go back to the track, to rekindle his enthusiasm for cycling after a bruising couple of months.
"Am I going to be able to bounce back? I think so, but maybe there again I'm overestimating my strength, as was the case ahead of the French nationals, and in the end, there I cracked," he admitted.