Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) captured a surprise win during stage 8 of the 2017 Tour de France, from Dole to Station des Rousses in the Jura mountains. The 24-year-old rider is a huge talent and already won stage 4 in the Vuelta a España last year during his first season in the pro peloton, and captured several victories in smaller stage races like the Etoile de Bessèges, the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe-Pays de Loire and the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. Of course, this win in the Tour de France is the biggest win of his career so far.
"This is huge. I still can't believe it. Winning in a Grand Tour is very special. I won a stage in the Vuelta but winning in the Tour de France is on another level. It's a dream that comes true. I was able to finish it off. It's unbelievable," Calmejane said.
"Reaching the finish solo was unique. During the last kilometres, I didn't suffer too much. My director sportif has a lot of experience and he told me it was in the pocket and to enjoy. The last few kilometres were extraordinary, very emotional."
A few kilometres earlier, it seemed as if Calmejane would lose it all as he was trying to fight cramps in his legs and was losing momentum. Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) might have gotten a second chance to reach out for the stage win, but Calmejane managed to get going again.
"After the descent, there was a short climb. I was on a big gear. Then I cramped. It was nearly catastrophic, but I managed to keep riding. It was a spectacle from the first kilometre. You feel that at the end of the day but it was also a mental challenge. You've got to use your head to survive."
The new kid on the block isn't too well known and some said that he's a 'cochon' and has a bit of a bad character.
"I hope they didn't use that word. It's true that some feel that I've got a bit of a character but I hope it's not bad. I think that every sportsman with ambition needs a strong character. Cycling is a very hard sport in which to succeed. My racing style demands that I ride with a lot of panache. Sometimes, I've got a big mouth when I'm riding in a group. It motivates me and the teammates when I put up a big mouth."
Calmejane appeared as strongest from a lead group that included proven riders like Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Gesink.
"We were in a group with very strong riders. I tried to save energy," Calmejane said. It paid off and on the last climb, he managed to deal well with the accelerations from Warren Barguil (Sunweb), Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data) and Gesink.
Any young French rider who performs well on the climbs is quickly asked whether he might become a future Grand Tour winner, but Calmejane fended off the speculation.
"The future will tell. Things are going very fast for me since this is only my second year as a professional rider," he said.
"I'm quite playful when I'm on the bike. I don't want to be too limited. I want to chase victories, rather than hunting for WorldTour points or classifications. I prefer to win something, rather than to hold back in order to salvage a general classification. I've got a lot of fun in our Direct Energie team. I've got a lot of admiration for Thomas Voeckler. It's great to ride with him for two years and share these emotional moments."
For now, the polka-dot jersey was an extra reward for his performance, but Calmejane isn't planning to defend his lead in the mountains classification on Sunday. "Tomorrow I will no longer have this jersey on my shoulders but maybe it can become a goal later in this Tour."
Ahead of the Tour de France, the Direct Energie team mainly caught attention for the troubled relationship between sprinter Bryan Coquard and his team. The French sprinter declared that he wanted to move to another team after not being selected for the Tour de France. It seemed difficult for the French team to shine in the Tour de France without their fast man.
Calmejane was asked if this put pressure on him or the team. "I didn't feel a lot of pressure in this Tour de France since I'm here in the Tour to discover. It's only my second Grand Tour. I won a stage in the Vuelta and now here, so I have my qualities. Then again, I'm not the type of rider who scored a top five in Paris-Nice or in the Dauphiné.
"With my qualities, I'm not the next Bernard Hinault. One has to be realistic about that. I perform well in stages with a certain profile, with a lot of adrenaline. Today I suffered a lot, but I had great fun."
Calmejane also gave respect to veteran teammate Thomas Voeckler, who soon will retire. "The year I started cycling was in 2004, when Thomas Voeckler captured the yellow jersey. Being on the same team like Voeckler for two years now is very special. I have a huge amount of respect for him," he said.
Calmejane didn't rule out that Voeckler or his other teammates would excel later in this Tour. He sensed that they might be on winning ways.
"There'll be a lot of champagne tonight. We tried every day since the start in Düsseldorf. We're in the breakaways, even if it's only to get air time. Hopefully, the team will get into a positive vibe thanks to this win. It's promising for the remainder of the Tour."