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Cosnefroy: Beating, supporting, and partying with Alaphilippe

PLOUAY FRANCE AUGUST 29 Benoit Cosnefroy of France and Ag2R Citroen Team celebrates winning during the 85th Bretagne Classic OuestFrance 2021 a 251km race from Plouay to Plouay OuestFrance on August 29 2021 in Plouay France Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images
Cosnefroy beats Alaphilippe to land the Bretagne Classic 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images)

He may have landed a breakthrough WorldTour-level victory, but the defining image of Benoît Cosnefroy from the 2021 season is perhaps that of him with beer in hand, cap on backwards, and rainbow jersey in mouth. 

It was in the French team’s hotel in Leuven in the late hours following Julian Alaphilippe’s World Championships victory, and Cosnefroy was leading the way in ensuring the title was celebrated appropriately. 

"I’m someone who gives a lot - whether it’s in the race or the party," the 26-year-old told Cyclingnews with a characteristic wide smile during a recent off-season interview. 

While Alaphilippe delivered a virtuoso performance and an 20km solo to land his second consecutive world title, Cosnefroy played a key role in laying the foundations. He went on the attack from 180km out, drawing out Belgium’s Remo Evenepoel and ultimately allowing for the race to really open up ahead of the return to the Leuven circuit. 

"It was a good party, that’s safe to say," Cosnefroy added. 

"You don’t get many moments like that in a career. You can’t be sure you’ll experience it again, so you have to make the most of it. You can’t bid your teammates goodnight after two hours, it’s not possible. We made the most of it and, it has to be said, Julian knows how to party as well."

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 26 Julian Alaphilippe of France celebrates as race winner with his teammate Benoit Cosnefroy of France after the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Men Elite Road Race a 2683km race from Antwerp to Leuven flanders2021 on September 26 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Kristof Ramon PoolGetty Images

Cosnefroy congratulates Alaphilippe in Leuven (Image credit: Getty Images)

Alaphilippe has long been a reference point when looking to define Cosnefroy; both are French, both are puncheurs, both are attacking-minded, and both are exuberant personalities. Yet, Worlds wasn’t the most significant moment they shared in 2021, nor should it be the defining image of Cosnefroy from this season. 

A month earlier, the pair sprinted it out for the victory at the Bretagne Classic, and Cosnefroy came out on top. It was a huge moment in his young career. 

"At the start of season, my aim was to win my first WorldTour race. I knew it was possible but that I would need all the stars to align, and it’s not often that happens. There is quite a small circle of riders who win most WorldTour races, he said. 

"I said to myself maybe it can happen, but when I crossed the line I was like ‘it’s done, I did it’. It was a great satisfaction."

It wasn’t just the simple fact that he crossed the line first, but the manner of how he got there. Cosnefroy got himself in the winning three-man break far out from the finish, but the odds looked stacked against the AG2R Citroën rider as the other two were both from Deceuninck-QuickStep: Alaphilippe and Mikkel Honoré. 

"It was a bit crazy. We went away, and I did as much work as the two QuickStep guys but I started to feel I was a little stronger, and maybe they sensed that as well and didn’t dare to attack me. That was my good fortune - that they didn’t attack me much. Sometimes against two riders from the same team you don’t dare to attack but I also did that at the right moments.

"I wasn’t stressed. I considered it an advantage to have two QuickStep riders with me - not a bad thing. I know Julian and I know sometimes if he doesn’t win it’s not that serious. He has nothing to prove to anyone, so I thought maybe it’s not that big a deal for him if he doesn’t win this one."

PLOUAY FRANCE AUGUST 29 LR Mikkel Honor of Denmark and Team Deceuninck QuickStep Julian Alaphilippe of France and Team Deceuninck QuickStep and Benoit Cosnefroy of France and Ag2R Citroen Team celebrates winning during the 85th Bretagne Classic OuestFrance 2021 a 251km race from Plouay to Plouay OuestFrance on August 29 2021 in Plouay France Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Cosnefroy outmuscles Alaphilippe in the uphill sprint (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Cosnefroy soon sensed his rivals were banking on Alaphilippe settling it in a sprint, and he was quite happy for that scenario to pan out.

"I didn’t have any fear about going to the sprint with Julian. I knew I was a little stronger on the day, so I sensed it was possible. It’s the first sprint I’ve ever won against him," Cosnefroy said. 

"Julian led me out really nicely, actually," he added with a laugh.

A frustrating first half of the year

Cosnefroy went on to win the Tour du Jura the next week, followed by a bronze medal in the European Championships road race and then the supporting role in Alaphilippe’s world title. It was a remarkable run, but one that pretty much saved his season. 

For the first three months of the year, Cosnefroy was blighted by a knee injury, which he traces, via an intermittent bad back, to a serious shoulder injury he suffered as an U23 in 2015. 

He started quietly at the end of March, did not finish Itzulia Basque Country, and was unable to make an impact at his big objectives: the Ardennes Classics.  He did finish 8th at Brabantse Pijl and went on to win the Tour du Finistère, but puts those results down to “desire” and “good decisions”, insisting he was “very very far off top form”. 

With pain still in his knee, they did little to lift his spirits. 

"The first half of the year was really difficult for me," Cosnefroy said. 

"I really wanted to write the first pages of this team after a lot of changes in the winter, with Citroën joining, Romain [Bardet] leaving, and new riders like Greg [Van Avermaet], Ben [O'Connor], and Bob [Jungels]. I was presented in December as one of the leaders of the team and for six months I did almost nothing.

MUR DE HUY BELGIUM APRIL 21 Benoit Cosnefroy of France and AG2R Citren Team on arrival during the 85th La Fleche Wallonne 2021 Men Elite a 1936km race from Charleroi to Mur de Huy 204m FlecheWallonne on April 21 2021 in Mur de Huy Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Cosnefroy struggles up the Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne (Image credit: Getty Images)

"Looking back, I wasn’t ready at all for the Ardennes. I still had pain in the knee. I was hoping something could happen for me but I was not on my level. I wanted to do the races because it would have been harder for me not to do them. I went knowing I wasn’t at 100 per cent but I preferred to do that than watch on TV."

Things were slow to improve. Although he managed to rid his knee of any pain, he was still not quite in top shape by the time the Tour de France rolled around. Still, the opening stage offered the yellow jersey to the puncheurs, with a similar opportunity on tap on the Mur de Bretagne a day later. 

However, Cosnefroy was caught up in both of the mass crashes towards the end of the opening stage, and was rarely seen again during the three weeks. 

"My mind was really fixed on that opening weekend. I felt it was an important moment in my season and maybe in my career. But sometimes you can’t avoid crashes.

"After the Tour, it was quite full-on. Often you come out of it in physically good shape but it’s the head that decides, and I had no desire to rest - I just wanted to carry on."

Next objective: Win an Ardennes Classic

Cosnefroy did manage to turn his fortunes around and can look back on his campaign with a degree of satisfaction. The momentum that he’d built up in the early years of his career was, in the end, continued and he can look ahead to 2022 with optimism. 

With the WorldTour win ticked off the bucket list, he is now setting his sights on a major Ardennes Classic. 

"That would be a dream. It’s really the big objective of my career. I don’t know if it will happen, but I will work hard for it."

Of course, without even mentioning the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, and Wout van Aert, Cosnefroy will have to get past his old friend and foe, Alaphilippe. 

"Julian is pretty much the best rider in the world in his profile. He definitely inspires me. When he wins a race, I look at how he does it, how he gets the better of his rivals. 

"I get on very well with him. He’s a great rider. He’s very generous in his turns but he has this mischief. He plays a lot, he shows a lot of personality, and I like that."

While noting that he and Alaphilippe are both ‘true puncheurs’, Cosnefroy pointed out that Alaphilippe has a greater level of all-round strength, evidenced by performances in the high mountains and against the clock, notably at the 2019 Tour de France. 

That will be a focus for the 26-year-old has he looks to exploit the last vestiges of his physical potential and hit his peak in the next couple of years. Psychologically, though, the win in Bretagne will have done him the world of good.

"Next year, Julian and I will be playing a lot of the same matches. I’ve beaten him now, and and hope I can do it again."

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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.