FDJ rider impresses in Oman as a new generation emerges
Early season races often throw up surprises and the revelation of this year's Tour of Oman was without a doubt French pure climber Kenny Elissonde of FDJ.
The 21-year-old is in his second season with FDJ and showed his potential by finishing sixth on the mountain stage to Green Mountain. He went on to win the best young rider's white jersey and finished eighth overall, 1:19 behind overall winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) but only 15 seconds down on Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). He was also 13th overall at the Tour Down Under.
Elissonde weighs just 52kg and the smallest white jersey the race organisers could find was at least two sizes too big. He is a pure climber but has also done well against the clock in Under 23 races, suggesting he could one day develop into a Tour de France contender. His 2011 victory at the Ronde de l’Isard stage race in the Pyrenees, ahead of George Bennett (Radioshack-Leopard) and Joe Dombrowski (Team Sky), is concrete proof of his potential.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere tried to sign him for 2012 but Elissonde opted to join FDJ after a spell as a stagiaire. He is coached by Julien Pinot, the bother of Thibaut Pinot, who finished 10th overall and won two stages at last year's Tour de France.
"I like it when the climbs are steep and hard. I prefer long climbs too, but the climb to Green Mountain was superb," he told Cyclingnews.
"I was on the right wheel at the start of the climb, with five kilometres to go and then realised I could climb with the leaders. It's impressive to ride with riders like Contador, Evans, Nibali and Froome. It's a dream come true to be able to stay with them."
The nouvelle vague of French cycling
Elissonde is part of the nouvelle vague emerging in French cycling. At FDJ there is also Arnaud Demare, Nacer Bouhanni and Thibaut Pinot, while Bryan Coquard has already won stages with Team Europcar.
They have all caught the eye of the French cycling media and cycling fans. However in another sign of change, Elissonde does not feel the weight of a nation on his narrow shoulders.
"I'm not worried about the expectations," he told Cyclingnews.
"There are a lot of talented young riders at FDJ now. When I'm racing with Arnaud Demare and Thibaut Pinot, I can see that I can compete with them and that we can compete against everyone else.
"It's a good moment for French cycling now.
"It was very difficult for a long time but now we can sense a change and see better performances. I think that's good. The other nations will look at France in a different way in the future. After years of problems in the past, it's time for a new future, in France and internationally. I'm focused on the future: my future and the future of cycling."
Elissonde has already won his first pro race: a stage at Paris-Corréze. This year he will also target mountain stages at the Volta a Catalunya and the Giro d'Italia.
"It'll be my first Grand Tour and I'll also be there to help Arnold Jeannesson. There are perhaps more mountain finishes at the Vuelta but I've always dreamt about the Giro and the Dante-esque stages and the Dolomite mountains."
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