Few riders have as much experience on the cobbles as Frédéric Guesdon, but the FDJ-BigMat rider is in the midst of his final Classics campaign before bringing the curtain down on his career at Paris-Roubaix, the race where he made his name with a surprise victory in 1997.
40 years old last October, Guesdon revealed at the beginning of the winter that he was to hang up his wheels in April, but a heavy fall at the Tour Down Under in January looked set to deny him the opportunity to ride through hell one last time and take his final bow at the famous old Roubaix velodrome. Lying in hospital in Adelaide shortly after being diagnosed with a fractured hip, Guesdon was all but resigned to ending his career on the other side of the world, far from the rough and tumble of the pavé.
“The first prognosis was a three-month lay-off, and seeing as my season was only ever going to be four months long anyway, it meant that it was effectively all over there and then,” Guesdon told Cyclingnews as he readied himself for last Friday’s E3 Harelbeke.
“But when I got back to France, the doctor told me that it wasn’t as bad as expected and that within a month I’d be able to get back training, bit by bit, and that I could at least get back and race before the end of my career. That was huge for my morale.”
After a month off the bike, Guesdon made a tentative return to the saddle aboard his home trainer before venturing out onto the road. His first competitive outing since his injury was in Belgium at Nokere Koerse ten days ago.
“It started well at Nokere but I found it a bit more difficult at GP Cholet - Pays De Loire,” he said. “That was hard going, but I needed to get back quickly because the time was limited. I’m finishing my career in the middle of April and everything is going by quickly. It’s good to be back racing and even if I can’t enjoy it too much, because I’m suffering, I’m still happy to be here.”
Although Guesdon failed to finish E3 Harelbeke on Friday, he will continue his build-up to Roubaix by racing the Three Days of De Panne and the Tour of Flanders. “I’m looking to race as much as possible before Roubaix. The idea is to go day by day, building up the kilometres and arrive ready for the start of the Tour of Flanders.”
Second at the amateur Paris-Roubaix in 1994, Guesdon finished the professional version at his first attempt with the ill-fated Le Groupement team the following year and then won in 1997 after he outsprinted a group including Jo Planckaert, Johan Museeuw and Frédéric Moncassin on the track in Roubaix. Although he never managed to repeat that famous triumph, Guesdon remains France’s last winner at Roubaix and has been a hugely consistent performer there ever since, while also adding a Paris-Tours victory to his palmares in 2006.
Now in his 18th season as a professional, Guesdon admitted that he had mixed emotions as he prepared to depart the great stage. “It’s motivating and hard at the same time,” he said. “I chose to end my career in April and race just the first four months of the year, but unfortunately that hasn’t panned out as I would have liked.
“But like I said, at the start I thought it was the end of my career and instead I was able to get back. It’s my last chance and we’ll see how it goes, even if I know it will be very hard to do a good result in these last Classics.”
Given the nature of his preparation, Guesdon harbours no illusions that he might enjoy the ultimate send-off on the day of his retirement, but is determined to soak up special atmosphere of the second Sunday in April.
“The idea is to start Paris-Roubaix and ride to the velodrome regardless, and take some pleasure out of my last race,” he said.
After securing a Brevet d’Etat certification as a sports coach last year, including a stint of work experience as a directeur sportif for FDJ at the Grand Prix de la Marseillaise, Guesdon is open about his desire to remain in the sport.
“For the moment there’s nothing planned, although I could see myself staying in the milieu, directeur sportif or otherwise,” he said. “But for now nothing is decided.”