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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Arnaud Démare wins stage 6
Frenchman looks to the pavé
If two years ago it was something of a surprise, this time around it was merely a confirmation. Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr) is now two for two on the final stage of the Tour of Qatar, but though similar in execution, his two victories on the Corniche came from very different places.
In 2012, Démare was taking his first steps as a professional, and while he was the reigning under-23 world champion, he was decidedly unsure of his place in the hierarchy of sprinters led by the elite rainbow jersey, Mark Cavendish.
Victory on that occasion, after less than a week in the peloton, offered the Frenchman some important early reassurances about his worth. Démare’s win on the final day of this year’s Tour of Qatar on Friday, by comparison, was simply a welcome indication of a solid winter’s work.
"I had good legs from the start of the week, so I’m not surprised," Démare said, admitting that while his base condition was good, it had initially been a struggle to get up to speed and match the pace laid down by Omega Pharma-QuickStep.
"The wind is very particular here, and this was our first race, unlike the guys who’d done the Tour Down Under or Tour de San Luis," he said. "When it’s your first race of the year, you still have to get back into the swing of things a bit, but fortunately we rounded off the week well."
Fortune was something in scant supply at FDJ.fr on the preceding five stages. Three of their number – Matthieu Ladagnous, David Boucher and Johan Le Bon – were forced out by crashes, while every time race radio crackled into action during the week, it seemed to be to avert the FDJ.fr team car that Démare had punctured.
"Yeah, I punctured four or five times this week alright, so I had a bit of bad luck myself and we did as a team too," said Démare, who had been unable to make a significant impact in the earlier bunch finishes.
Come Friday and the Corniche, however, and Démare was up to speed. Buoyed by his prior knowledge of the finale, perhaps, he was well-positioned in the closing kilometres, and then launched a powerful sprint in the final 200 metres to finish well clear of Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo).
"I saw that the Saxo guys were well-placed and I knew they were going to be the leading train: if you wanted to win, you had to be up there with them," he said.
A northern soul
Démare laughed when it was put to him that the Corniche was Qatar’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, and while he makes no secret of his desire to debut in the Tour de France in 2014, for now, he has eyes only for the cobblestones of Belgium and northern France.
"The objective is to be on top form from Gent-Wevelgem to Paris-Roubaix," Démare said. "Those are very high-level races and while I’m not going to say that I’m going to win them, I’d certainly like to ride well there."
As an amateur, Démare raced in the heart of Paris-Roubaix country, riding first for Team Wasquehal and then for CC-Nogent-sur-Oise, and for a 22-year-old, he already has a wealth of experience on the pavé.
"I did the junior version of Paris-Roubaix twice, I did the under-23 version once, and I rode it last year as a pro, so I’ve already started to get a good idea of the way the race unfolds, even if I don’t know the parcours perfectly yet, of course," he told Cyclingnews.
Démare was a regular visitor to Roubaix during the off-season, as his girlfriend is a student in nearby Lille, but he resisted the temptation to test out the pavé in the depths of winter. He did, however, avail of the chance to train on the covered Jean Stablinski Vélodrome, just a stone’s throw from the finish of Paris-Roubaix.
"My girlfriend is studying in Lille, and the velodrome in Roubaix is only 20 minutes from her apartment, so it’s perfect preparation in the winter, especially when it’s cold," he said. "I leave the pavé for later in the year. It’s hard work riding on the cobbles and you certainly don’t want to do too much too soon there."
It was across the border in Flanders, however, where Démare had his best performances of the 2013 spring campaign, placing 12th at Gent-Wevelgem, narrowly missing out on a pair of stage wins at the Three Days of De Panne, and then finishing a creditable 24th in his debut Tour of Flanders.
"I cracked a bit in the finale and got dropped from the first group with 20km to go to the finish but in a race like that, experience and positioning count for so much," he said. "It was a good experience just to discover it."
"The crowds were the thing that impressed me the most. There are fans standing on every metre of the course, you can sense how much it means to people and, well, that atmosphere at the start in Bruges is just something else."
A far cry, certainly, from the calm of the Corniche.