By Jean-François Quénet and Hedwig Kröner in Varese, Italy
The French team had expected to be the underdog of the World Championships in Varese but had nothing to celebrate at the end of the week. Since France's best result before the final event, the elite men's road race, was Cyril Gautier's sixth place in the U23 men's road race, the country where the UCI was founded in 1900 ended their Italian campaign with only one accomplishment to celebrate: its national federation is no longer politically banned from international cycling after an agreement was reached between the UCI and the directors of the Tour de France.
In Sunday's elite men's road race, there were no Frenchmen in the 15-man group that played for the win. The team's captain and best performer of the year Sylvain Chavanel wasn't too happy with finishing in 53rd. His future teammate at Quick Step, Jérôme Pineau, finished the race as the highest ranked Frenchman in 19th position. "We had a tactic," Pineau revealed. "Sylvain was supposed to wait for the last lap and I was being saved for an eventual sprint."
Having a pre-determined tactic was a step up for the French team, which often heads to the race with a see-how-it-goes approach. Since the last French win by Laurent Brochard in 1997, the French have managed to win two bronze medals at the Worlds: Jean-Cyril Robin in 1999 and Anthony Geslin in 2005.
National coach Frédéric Moncassin seemed down after France's poor result in Varese. "I'm disappointed and frustrated because we could have done better," he said. "The team generally speaking was at a good level. Chavanel waited, I hope I haven't prevented him from having gotten ahead."
On the penultimate lap, Chavanel had still looked easy on the second, more dragging climb of the circuit. Still, the Frenchman had to settle for the 53rd ultimately, after he gambled that the favourites' group would keep the race together for the final lap.
He had to realize his race was over when former World Champion Paolo Bettini stared to shake hands in the chase group, saying his goodbyes to pro cycling. A breakaway including the later winner Alessandro Ballan was off the front, as the Italian team's race tactics worked out perfectly to trap such important contenders as Oscar Freire and Alejandro Valverde from Spain.
"I respected my instruction," Chavanel seconded the team's tactic outlined by Moncassin. "I followed the favourites, but in the end, I got trapped in that sprinter's group around Freire, Boonen and Bettini," he said, nevertheless smiling. "I wanted to wait for the final lap to make my move. I should have anticipated. It's frustrating, as I felt really good."
The Frenchman couldn't help admiring the perfect strategy of the Italian team, which got the Squadra Azzurra its third rainbow jersey in a row. "The Italians really played their cards well. Everybody was deceived! The Spanish, too, lost out completely," he added.