Five months after his outstanding Tour de France, Pierre Rolland is facing high expectations, especially from his French compatriots who have been looking for a successor to Bernard Hinault since 1985. “In 2012, vote Pierre Rolland!” read the headline of Vélo Magazine in August, referring to the French presidential election of May 2012. The Europcar all-rounder, who started the 2011 Tour de France as Thomas Voeckler's guardian angel, qualified for the second round as it were, as he captured the Alpe d'Huez stage and the best young rider's jersey, finally finishing 11th overall.
Since then, supporters and even his own entourage have struggled to get Rolland to reveal his goals for the 2012 season. He gives a very few interviews and seems to protect himself. However, Jean-René Bernaudeau, his manager, told Cyclingnews that his protégé is “much stronger in his head and quite likes the pressure”.
“This year's Tour de France helped Pierre a lot,” Team Europcar's manager said. “Thomas’ [Voeckler] yellow jersey transcended him. For a while, my boys had been subjected and now they could express themselves. Part of Pierre's strength in the mountains is due to the morale boost he felt when he was seeing good riders dropped out of his group. It’s a question of endorphin rush!”
Bernaudeau hopes Rolland's spirit and ambition will be the same in 2012. Yet he knows nothing guarantees him a better or even similar performance. In 1979, Bernaudeau himself finished 5th in the Tour, aged 23, and was trumpeted as a serious opponent to Bernard Hinault. In the years that followed, he never did better than coming 6th on two occasions.
“Cycling is not an exact science, but Pierre is lucky in that it's a sport of mature athletes and he is only 25,” Bernaudeau said.
Asked bluntly if Rolland can win the race one day, the Europcar manager hesitated for a moment and then answered: “Why not? If the Schlecks can win the Tour, Pierre Rolland can do this as well. He can follow the two brothers in the mountains. This year, there is no doubt he could have gone with Andy Schleck on the Galibier stage but he decided to stay with Thomas.”
In time trial, meanwhile, Bernaudeau thinks that Rolland is "stronger than the Schleck brothers." Europcar will also use new time trial bikes in 2012. “We can gain 30 seconds over 20 kilometres,” Bernaudeau said.
One thing might affect Rolland's performance in the 2012 Tour de France, however: the first week. “He will be more surrounded than last year,” Bernaudeau said. “But can he be as clever as Thomas in the peloton? In 2011 he lost time on Châteauroux stage.” Indeed, Rolland coughed up 3'06'' on stage 3 because of his positioning at the end of the bunch just before a crash split the field.
“Next year, he will be in the short list of riders that every team will be happy to trap in echelons during the early stages,” Bernaudeau said. “So, the 2013 Grand Départ in Corsica will suit him more than 2012’s early stages in Belgium and northern France.”
Bernaudeau is careful not to claim any particular goal for Rolland in 2012.
“The most important thing is the team,” he said. “We will work for the rider who will be the best one at the right time. We will play with a full roster, not only with one or two riders, even if Thomas, Pierre and Christophe [Kern] will certainly have a special status in the team.” The manager also thinks that Anthony Charteau, polka-dot jersey in the 2011 Tour de France, can be a serious outsider throughout the season.
Rolland schedule's remains uncertain. As a Pro Continental team, Europcar needs invitations and obviously struggles to find races in the beginning of the year. The Tour's best young rider would like to compete as early as possible given that he stopped his 2011 season relatively early, on September 11, after the Grand Prix de Montréal. “He speaks about Paris-Nice but honestly I would prefer if he delayed his goals by one month,” Bernaudeau said.
The team manager wants Rolland to focus on the Ardennes Classics and stay fresh in October to perform at the Tour of Lombardy.
“Pierre can do very well at all those races, of course if the team ethic is working.” Bernaudeau said. “His 2011 Tour de France is a trigger. Now he will have the great career he deserves.”
Just as Voeckler apparently inspired Rolland, the latter might be an example for some other young riders in Europcar, such as Cyril Gautier, 24 years old, and a former Junior European Champion. The team’s newcomer from Aqua e Sapone, 25-year-old Rafaâ Chtioui, will also be looking top step up. The Tunisian won the time trial in the 2007 Tour de l'Avenir and finished second in the 2004 Junior World Championship behind Roman Kreuziger.