It’s 11 years and counting since Sylvain Chavanel easily brushed aside Jeremy Roy in a two-up sprint in Montluçon to win Cofidis’ last Tour de France stage win. 11 years of missed chances, 11 years of poor signings, and 11 years of underachievement for a team that was first formed in 1997 under the stewardship of Cyrille Guimard.
Several team managers have been ushered in and out of the Cofidis doors since then, but the latest boss at the helm, Cedric Vasseur, is optimistic that this year’s roster can finally end their drought.
There is certainly a sense of optimism around the Cofidis camp ahead of the Brussels Grand Départ – not the desperation that used to permeate from the team in years gone by. Vasseur, who was appointed ahead of the 2018 season, has had little room to manoeuvre in the transfer market since taking charge but he has at least changed the attitude of several riders as he looks to get the best out of the modest squad.
He has also ushered the team’s underperforming sprinter, Nacer Bouhanni, to one side without destabilizing the rest of the team. The French sprinter, who has now been left out of the Cofidis team for the last two Tours, is surely set to depart at the end of the year when his contract expires. That will free up budget for new recruits, but here, at this year’s Tour de France, Vasseur is only willing to focus on the eight riders he has selected.
"The selection was naturally made over the last few weeks. There are some races that were naturally important, like the Critérium du Dauphiné, like the Ventoux race. These are races where you can’t hide," Vasseur told Cyclingnews after Cofidis’ pre-race press conference in Brussels.
"The team we’ve got here, first we took the winners. There are four: [Christophe] Laporte, [Jesus] Herrada, [Julien] Simon, and [Natnael] Berhane. They know the way to win, and the other four riders complete our roster because you can’t just have winners. You need helpers too. We’ve tried to make a well-balanced team and we’ve looked to create a team that takes pleasure in working together because it’s a three-week race and that’s a long trip."
From their Tour roster, Herrada looks like the man most likely to win a stage. The Spaniard, who Vasseur signed almost immediately after starting at the team, has been in scintillating form in recent weeks, with a commanding win the Tour of Luxembourg, a win in the Mont Ventoux challenge, and third at the Spanish national road championships.
Laporte will look to compete in the bunch sprints but the likes of Berhane, Stephane Rossetto, and Nicolas Edet are all worth watching over the coming weeks as the team hunt stages.
"Every year it’s another year more," Vasseur said of the team’s long drought.
Vasseur, of course, is himself a two-time stage winner in the race, having snatched his first win and the yellow jersey in 1997 through a brave day-long solo break and having won a decade later with QuickStep. He raced for Cofidis for four years but never tasted victory at the Tour in their colours, although he did finish second on a stage to Mende in his final year with the team in 2005.
Since his return as a manager, he has looked to change the culture within the team. That has taken time and hard work rather than an instant injection of cash in the transfer market, but he pointed to steady improvement over the last 18 months as proof that his team is slowly finding the right course.
"It’s 11 years. We don’t have so much pressure. We’re not a WorldTour team yet but we’re hoping to be one next year. We have to compare ourselves to other Pro Continental teams. We’re here with a wildcard but we’re on our way to improving. Laporte was second at the Tour in Pau last year and we won a stage in the Vuelta. This is the third Grand Tour since I’ve come here and I think we can expect more. We’re improving," he said.
"I can’t deny we have pressure. We’re here to win - not just to start the race. Last year we really focused on the behaviour of the team. We wanted to be in breaks and we wanted to be at the front. It’s better to see a Cofidis jersey in the break than in the back of the bunch. Now the objective is to win. The team knows that. Last year was a test and now we can use that experience to win a stage."
This year, Vasseur will be hoping for more than just airtime in breaks, and a stage win would go a long way to demonstrating his true effects on the team.