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Francois Pervis and Michael Bauge in the men's sprint during an exhibition race at the inauguration ceremony of the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines Velodrome
New track to prefigure French Federation's answer to Team Sky?
The curtain was raised on the Vélodrome National, the new headquarters of the French Cycling Federation in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, on Thursday evening with an exhibition match between France and Great Britain. To say the event had been a long time coming would be something of an understatement.
An anecdote recounted in the morning's edition of L'Équipe illustrated the point. When Daniel Morelon, France's most successful ever track sprinter, was awarded the Mérite National by Charles de Gaulle in 1966, he gamely took the opportunity to raise a pressing concern with the president. "General, we're the only country in Europe without a covered track," he lamented.
Remarkably, considering France's success on the track in the intervening period, Paris has been without a permanent and full-sized covered track for 55 years, ever since the Vélodrome d'Hiver was demolished in 1959. The Vel' d'Hiv's name is now forever synonymous with perhaps the bleakest chapter in Parisian history, when it was used as a detention centre for Jewish prisoners before they were sent to concentration camps. In its heyday between the wars, however, it had been the nerve centre of French cycling and part of the cultural life of the Paris, with Ernest Hemingway among those filing through the turnstiles for six day racing.
Unlike the temporary track laid at Bercy in the 1980s, however, the Vélodrome National is aimed not at recreating the smoky ambience of Six Days past, but at producing future medallists for France at the Olympic Games and world championships. After using the 166-metre track at the INSEP training centre as their base in recent years, France's track squad now has a 250-metre track at its disposal on the outskirts of Paris, a development which the FFC hopes will bring it back on a par with its neighbours across the English Channel, whose strides forward over the past decade have been amplified by significant National Lottery funding.
Indeed, the parallels between the French federation's project and that of British Cycling are striking. Just as the Manchester velodrome was a legacy of the city's failed bid to host the 2000 Olympics, the Vélodrome National was originally conceived as part of Paris' bid to host the 2012 Games. At a cost of some €68 million (75% of which came from public funds), the complex houses the new velodrome and a BMX facility, as well as the offices of the French cycling federation.
"We were promised a covered track for the Île-de-France by General de Gaulle in the 1960s, and finally it is a reality," FFC president David Lappartient told a capacity crowd of 5,000 invited spectators, which included UCI president Brian Cookson. "After the disappointment of missing out on hosting the Olympic Games, we've worked hard towards building this structure."
In a sense, the objective is to create a cycling version of Clairefontaine, the French Football Federation's nearby training academy, which opened its doors in 1988. When France won its first-ever World Cup a decade later, the squad included a number of graduates of Clairefontaine and its system. With the existing velodromes in Bordeaux, Roubaix, Bourges and Hyères acting as regional centres of excellence for young riders, the idea is that the brightest talents will graduate to the Vélodrome National, which around twenty elite riders will use as their permanent base.
France takes the spoils in exhibition
The evening's exhibition event was preceded by a parade of past French Olympic and world championship medallists, led by Albert Bouvet and featuring riders including Florian Rousseau, Bernard Thevenet, Felicia Ballanger and Laurent Brochard. The loudest cheer of the evening was reserved for Laurent Jalabert, who stepped down as French road coach last year before it emerged that a re-tested sample from the 1998 Tour de France had been found to be positive for EPO, although Jeannie Longo, whose achievements have also been tarnished, was not present on Thursday evening.
With the track world championships in Cali less than a month away, Thursday night's exhibition was a useful work-out for both France and Britain, but for all the psychological points-scoring, there was a sense that few wanted to show their hands much ahead of the main event in Colombia.
The honour of winning the first sprint on the track fell to France's Virginie Cueff, and indeed French riders would dominate proceedings in the evening's events of the sprint, keirin and team sprint. Jason Kenny was the only British man to win his opening round in the individual sprint, although he could only manage 3rd on the night, as Grégory Baugé beat François Pervis in the final.
Pervis claimed the men's keirin, while the French duo of Cueff and Sandie Clair beat Victoria Williamson and Katy Marchant in the women's team sprint. The men's event brought the curtain down on the evening's racing, and the French team of Baugé, Kevin Sireau and Michael D'Almeida won out comfortably ahead of Kenny, Matt Crampton and Kian Emadi.
"France versus England is always enjoyable, whether it's in cycling or rugby [the countries meet in the Six Nations Championship on Saturday – ed.]," Baugé said afterwards.
The British-French duel is a long game on the track, however. After falling behind Britain over the past two Olympic cycles, the French Federation is hopeful that its new home will bear fruit in Tokyo in 2020, if not in Rio in two years' time.
And the rivalry, it seems, will not be confined solely to the track. Twelve months ago, federation president Lappartient spoke of his desire to create a "Team Sky à la française", a WorldTour road team backed by the FFC. Work on the project has already begun, and an update on its progress is set to be presented at the Vélodrome National on Friday.