By Jean-François Quénet in Strathalbyn, Australia
The sun of South Australia makes all the riders happy but it's a natural attitude for Saunier Duval's new signing Denis Flahaut, who was laughing with reporters prior to the start of stage four in Manum. And he was still smiling after crossing the finishing line in Strathalbyn in fifth position. "I was following the train but I got boxed in and I couldn't pass through," the Frenchman said with a slight hint of regret, although he was mostly delighted to have sprinted with the fastest men at the end of an extremely hard day for him. He suffered a lot during the two first hours of racing, and was close to getting dropped off a few times.
Climbing is the crucial question for Flahaut. If he overcomes the hills, then he's a pure explosive sprinter. He couldn't find his place in the French amateur ranks where very few races actually finish in bunch sprints. Fortunately, in 2006 he was given a chance in Belgium when Ronny Assez from the Continental team Flanders hired him. There, the young Frenchman caught the attention of experienced directeur sportif Jos Braeckevelt who signed him at Jartazi, for which he won seven races last year including the Tour of the Brown Coal (Rund um die Braunkohle) in Germany and the Tour of Midden-Zealand in the Netherlands.
"I have beaten Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen in bunch sprints," he recalled. Ag2r knew about that but it was Mauro Gianetti from Saunier Duval who gave him his first pro contract at the highest level starting in 2008. "For us, it doesn't matter if he's already 29 years old," said his directeur sportif at the Tour Down Under, Joxean 'Matxin' Fernandez. "Only his sprinting abilities count. In Belgium, he's called 'the bomb', that means a lot. We needed French riders and sprinters, we have found one who is both of that. We know his weaknesses but we'll work on the qualities he's got."
Flahaut certainly appreciates the new-found support. "Never before I've been given a lead-out and now I have Spanish team-mates who bring me back up to the front of the bunch when I need it, without telling them to do it," he explained. "I still have to work a lot, but the race programme I was given will help me to improve."
The Northerner from Valenciennes on the course of Paris-Roubaix is scheduled for Paris-Nice, the Classics, the Dauphiné and the Tour de France. "I'm going to do races that I believed were impossible for me to take part in very few time ago," he said.