Last year's World Championships in Qatar remain a humiliation for the French national team with its two sprinters Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Démare fighting the night before the race for the squad's leadership and finally missing the early break that the peloton never caught.
The most surreal scene happened at the recon, though, when coach Bernard Bourreau drove his car alone across the desert and, facing a breakdown, had to stop and fix the engine under a heavy sun, with nothing else around him but sand. In order to avoid such a debacle, Bourreau, 66, decided to retire and French cycling federation looked for a new, modern plan: Cyrille Guimard.
A 70-year-old national coach to restore the credibility of the 'tricolore' outfit? That was a bit of an unexpected decision, younger ex-pros applied, such as Jacky Durand (50), the famous baroudeur of the 90s, or Jean-Patrick Nazon (40), the Champs-Elysées stage winner in 2003. "Why not bringing back Raphaël Géminiani?" laughed some riders and journalists, referring to Jacques Anquetil's mentor, now aged 92.
Guimard is Guimard, though, and his career perfectly reflects the glory of French cycling over the past four decades. 1972: he beats Eddy Merckx on a Tour de France mountain stage at the Mont-Revard but pulls out of the race because of a knee injury – an iconic picture shows him suffering off his bike with a friend of his standing on the right, a certain "Docteur Mabuse" - the recently sentenced to four years imprisonment in a doping case.
Guimard took seven stage wins at the Tour and seven overall victories as a sports director, after his retirement from competition aged 29. The Breton drove Belgian Lucien Van Impe (1976), then Frenchman Bernard Hinault (1978-79, 81, 82) and Laurent Fignon (1983-84). "I also had some World Champions in my team," he underlines, naming Hinault who took the rainbow jersey in Sallanches, in the French Alps, in 1980.
The photos of Guimard's reign are no less iconic: he drives his car shirtless and smoking, very rebellious and authoritarian. He becomes one of the most successful and powerful cycling team managers of all time. Newspapers nickname him "Napoléon". Now, a radio and TV consultant, he has been christened "The Druid", for his old and immense knowledge. Officially involved within the third division team of Roubaix-Eurométropole de Lille, Guimard hasn't run a top squad since Cofidis in 1997 – when he hired Lance Armstrong, Tony Rominger and others. Is he credible to speak to Julian Alaphilippe, the leader of the 'bleu-blanc-rouge' team, who could feasibly be his grandson?
"Riders do listen to me," Guimard told Cyclingnews. "They trust me because I have a plan. I am not at this position [head national coach] because I am bored or looking for an ultimate recognition, I am not stuck in the past. I have built a plan and I am working a lot on the 'Equipe de France'".
Cyclingnews understands Hinault's former guardian angel wrote a proposal when he applied to the role last Spring, designing a strong network with the trade teams which "suggest riders' names" among those they believe to be ready and then "train them" for the European or World Championships. As a result, several team managers praise Guimard's for the "great work together".
"And there is no way we have riders stuck in a hotel room the day before the race," he told Cyclingnews, when asked about the Bouhanni-Démare incident from last year.
Nothing old, nothing new, only "common sense". "Cyrille is still a young coach, very up to date about new technologies," says Antoine Vayer, the ex-Festina coach and anti-doping advocate who works with Guimard to develop Breton cyclo-cross rider Matthieu Boulo. This surprising collaboration between two very opposite men shows, at least, the open mind or the pragmatism of Cyrille Guimard, who intimately knows every rider and coach in France in the last 40 years.
"The most important thing, like always, is the mind," Guimard recalls. "I would love the new generation to look more at itself than the SRM. The SRM is a tool and shouldn't be a limit. How many riders get broken when they see a figure at a race and believe they can't go further?"
At the Renault team in the late 70s and early 80s, Guimard developed many modern technologies now branded as "marginal gains" by Team Sky, like the aerodynamics time trial bike frames and handlebars. He was the first to give his riders a full medical follow-up with the local hospital – which made the doctor figure a key position of the team instead of the old 'soigneurs'. He fought against riders' agents who were depriving him of his riders by aligning them into criteriums.
"I am a bad politician," says the then-feared, if not hated, man who was perhaps the David Brailsford of his time. "But nothing is better than the brain and the mind," he says. As a national coach, in charge of the French riders one to three times a year only, he knows he can't have a huge impact on their attitude. "Except if I let them think that they can win..."
His outspoken style might be a strength for the national French squad too. Asked if the non-selection of Arnaud Démare and Nacer Bouhanni for Bergen was a punishment for their non-professional behavior last year, Guimard said "No", with a smile of somebody very above petty deals, but he found his strict and categorical voice to give further explanations: "Our two sprinters are out of shape. I spoke with them and I had the feeling they are not into the Worlds."
Bouhanni won stages at the Tour de l'Ain and Tour Poitou-Charentes alongside the GP Fourmies while Démare collected the Brussels Cycling Classic and finished second at the Cyclassics Hamburg, "but this is not enough to be in contention for the rainbow jersey," Guimard believes. Never mind the two fast men have been French national champions and are paid as much or more than the climbers and Grand Tour riders of the "new" French generation: they have no privileges in Guimard's world.
Guimard's is astonishing and unbearable because of his "Monsieur Je-Sais-Tout" side (Mr know-it-all) but he is often right. He made Thibaut Pinot angry when he blamed him, from his TV expert position, for his aerodynamic work in time trials and tactics at the 2013 Tour of Switzerland but the rider later tried to improve in these two departments. Regarding Pinot, Guimard hasn't changed his opinion: "He raced his first Tour de France too young. 2012 was too early. This is the reason that I prevented Hinault from making his Tour de France debut in 1977: he went to the race the year after and won it."
While speaking to Cyclingnews, Guimard is mentally turning the pages of his photo gallery. He stops at the chapter of the last big talent he has scouted and developed – within the Vélo Club Roubaix. "Andy Schleck turned pro too early too [aged 20 -ed.]. I had told Bjarne Riis to wait one more year but he was scared Andy could sign to another team. This is definitely a mistake and it does explain why Andy missed some maturity in his career."
Last Saturday, as he was traveling from Brittany to Norway, having a stop in Paris train station, the legendary coach insisted on carrying his suitcase down the stairs from the third to the ground floor. No escalator or elevator, he says: "I must exercise myself". This is also a way to show he is not tired. "I don't know when I will be bored or old. Maybe the day I will lose my passion for cycling. But I don't know if it will happen one day." He was looking at his smartphone because the UCI had just released a provisional start list. He named "the whole Belgian team," Italy's Matteo Trentin ("this guy is just showing his bike around"), Norway's Alexander Kristoff and Edvald Boasson Hagen as some of the many favourites alongside the defending champion Peter Sagan. "The course is not tough by itself but the race will be long and, certainly, wet. This will be like a real classic," Guimard said.
There was a little sunshine on the French capital that day. "Very different from Brittany," he said. "Yesterday I couldn't ride my bike." He knew already everything about Bergen's forecast, all the data and details. "Do you know there are umbrella vending machines all across this country? This is properly fascinating."
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