There can't be many professional cyclists looking forward to saying goodbye to 2017 more than Bryan Coquard. The Frenchman endured a bitter split from the Direct Energie team, in which he was prevented from riding the Tour de France, but this week he was able to start looking ahead to 2018 as he linked up with his new Vital Concept team for the first time – an experience he likened to 'the first day back at school'.
"Now I think you will see Bryan Coquard with a smile on his face again," he said in a Q&A with the Ouest France newspaper during the first winter training camp of the new French Pro Conti team, founded by Jerome Pineau.
Coquard signed for the team in August, but he announced his desire to leave Direct Energie in May, and that was what caused his relationship with team manager Jean-Rene Bernaudeau to deteriorate. Bernaudeau threatened to leave Coquard out of the squad for the Tour de France, setting a string of ultimatums, and in the end he did so – a decision that baffled many observers. Coquard's mother accused the team of 'destroying him psychologically'.
Coquard made racing appearances in July, August, and September, but his heart had already left the team.
"It has been long and complicated. It wasn't something trivial. I worked at it and tried to understand what happened, what had happened to me psychologically. I hid it from myself, saying it wasn't affecting me, that it was only cycling… but in spite of that, it very much affected me, wounded me. I had the impression that I'd given a lot, and that it was an injustice," Coquard said in the Ouest France interview.
"I needed to turn the page after going through some difficult moments. But in hindsight, it made me grow up and mature a little quicker still. Now I'm turning towards 2018, towards this new challenge, and I had a big smile when [teammate] Julien Morice came round on Wednesday to head to the camp. It was like the first day back at school."
Coquard said that 2018 is not a case of him 'bouncing back' or 'starting from scratch', insisting that he has not lost his level or finishing speed, and that if anything he is fresher after what he terms a 'half-season'.
He will begin his 2018 campaign in the Emirates, where the Dubai Tour takes place in January and the Abu Dhabi Tour in February, but the big one is of course the Tour de France in July. There's little doubt that Coquard would lead Vital Concept but, as a Pro Conti team reliant on wildcard invitations to WorldTour races, they need to get there first.
"If we're good in the opening races, and behind the scenes we work hard at it, then we'll have all the cards in our hands to be invited to the Tour," he said. "The goal, wherever we go, will be to win. It's important that the organisers know that we don't only want to be invited to their races, but to win them. We won't be there to make up the numbers. For a new Pro Conti team, it's daring to say that, but it's thought through. On Thursday we said 'we're not going to try; we're going to do it'.
"For me, it's unthinkable [not to do the Tour]. I'm telling myself that we're going to perform, we're going to win races quickly, that everyone will put in 200 per cent, and that things will gather pace."