Olivier Le Gac couldn’t believe his eyes when hundreds of people waited for him at Brest’s airport in France Monday to honour the new UCI Junior Road World Champion. The Frenchman was a football player just 12 months ago and is yet to turn 17, but was crowned as cycling’s newest champion in Italy on Sunday.
“I didn’t expect to see so many people,” said an emotional Le Gac. “I’m happy to see all these smiles, it’s super. When I saw them I really wanted to cry. I already cried after the race, but they were warm tears. I went to the world championship to deliver a result but honestly I didn’t think I’d become the world champion.”
It was Le Gac’s ability to keep a cool head that secured him the victory. He attacked the breakaway group with seven kilometres remaining and stayed calm when he suffered a gear shifting problem 800 metres away from the finish line.
“Olivier doesn’t know what stress is,” said his father Denis, who still races locally at the age of 49. His elder brothers Laurent and Sylvain are also competitive cyclists in Brittany, but Olivier only took up cycling recently. Last year he was still playing football at the Plabennec club, whose senior team plays in the third French professional league. “I definitely prefer cycling,” he said.
Le Gac was also a provincial champion for cross-country running twice. Despite being a first year junior Le Gac has won many bike races this year, including criteriums against elite riders, French national junior races, the French team pursuit national championship and the GP Patton in Luxemburg. That success meant his name was mentioned as an outside chance for the world championship in Offida, Italy.
While French cycling has struggled in recent years at a professional level, Le Gac’s title comes only 10 months after Romain Sicard’s triumph in the U23 World Championship. Le Gac is also the third Frenchman to win the junior world championship in a period of nine years. Arnaud Gérard claimed victory in 2002 and Johan Le Bon won in 2008.
All three riders hail from Brittany, which is historically the hot bed of French cycling, where Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to have won the Tour de France 25 years ago, desperately looks for a successor. However Le Gac has warned fans that his main goal next year will be to pass his A-level exams.
As he’ll turn 17 on August 27, Le Gac will still be a junior rider in 2011. That means he’ll be able to enjoy life with a rainbow jersey.