By Jean-François Quénet in Adelaide
Sébastien Hinault has returned to Adelaide for the fourth time, but it's a first for him in AG2R colors having previously worn the same Crédit Agricole jersey for 10 years. "It feels strange," he said. "When I looked at the footage of the Cancer Council Classic I couldn't find myself in the peloton. It has a lot to do with this blue jersey that is new to me."
Hinault was a contender in the inaugural Tour Down Under back in 1999. "It's a good memory since we won the race with Stuart O'Grady, but I also remember I suffered a lot due to the extremely hot conditions," the Frenchman said.
Ten years ago, he discovered the "warrior's mentality" of riders like O'Grady. "During my entire career I've had a lot of sympathy for Australians, New Zealanders and Scandinavians because they leave their homes, move to Europe and learn our languages for racing," said the long-term friend and former teammate of Thor Hushovd . "Their experience has given me the will to travel myself thanks to bike races. I've always put my hand up to ride the Tour Down Under, Le Tour de Langkawi, the Tour of Qatar, the Tour of California – I've even done the Tour of Gabon."
Hinault still enjoys racing at the age of 35. He was happy to share his never-ending love of cycling with his former teammate Jens Voigt, the oldest rider of the 2009 Tour Down at 37 years old. Voigt was born one day before Lance Armstrong. "Jens and I realized once again that we have a beautiful job."
Hinault's motivation remains that of a young rider. Hinault turned down an offer by Roger Legeay to become a directeur sportif in 2004 because he had no will to stop cycling. A stage winner at the Vuelta a España last year, he aims for more after switching to AG2R La Mondiale. "I had the possibility of joining my local team Bretagne-Schuller [formerly Bretagne-Armor Lux, ed.] but I still wanted to race at the highest level," said the Breton rider.
"At AG2R, I'll have a similar role as at Crédit Agricole," he added. "I'll guide the young guys. I believe Nicholas Roche, who made the same move as me from Crédit Agricole to AG2R, can be the revelation of the coming season after the confidence he got from doing well at last year's Vuelta a España. Also, I'll enjoy some freedom myself since there aren't top sprinters at AG2R."
Hinault might not be seen as a world-class sprinter himself, but he won stage 10 of last year's Vuelta a España in front of another Frenchman who is now his teammate, Lloyd Mondory, and he also remembers the riders who came 3rd, 4th and 5th in that bunch sprint: Greg van Avermaet, Oscar Freire and Tom Boonen. When he won stage four in the 2004 Tour of Germany, it was ahead of Allan Davis and Tom Boonen. At the 2006 Le Tour de Langkawi, he prevailed against an up-and-coming sprinter named Mark Cavendish in stage eight to Segamat.
He's definitely not one of these Frenchmen who think in advance that they will lose against the world's most renowned sprinters. "I'm not the only one," he insisted. "Anthony Geslin's 6th place in Milan-Sanremo last year inspires me. For the first time I'll do Milan-Sanremo without having to lead Hushovd out. If I make the front group, I'll play my chances." Hinault also reckoned he's able to win a stage at the Tour Down Under, a race already won four times overall by his new AG2R team with Gilles Maignan in 2000, Mikel Astarloza in 2003, Simon Gerrans in 2006 and Martin Elmiger in 2007.