There is a growing community of French expatriates in southern Portugal, and it felt as though as a sizeable portion of their number had gathered around Arnaud Démare as he warmed down after placing second in the sprint on stage 4 of the Volta ao Algarve in Tavira.
Démare met their inquiries with good humour before Groupama-FDJ directeur sportif Frédéric Guesdon politely nudged his way through for a more formal debriefing of the sprint, which was won by Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma). The frustration of taking another second place on this race – he was beaten by Fabio Jakobsen on the opening day in Lagos – was tempered by the quality of his physical performance.
"My team did a great job. We waited a bit longer than the first day, our timing was good, but I lost my place on the last corner with 500 metres to go," Démare told Cyclingnews as he pedalled on the turbo trainer. “I was too far back when the sprint started. I was making up ground, I was coming back, I was going very fast but – pfff, badly placed."
Démare has been a regular at the Volta ao Algarve over the years, but for the second successive season, the Portuguese race marks his seasonal debut. That change came about in part after an exhausted Démare missed the time cut on the 2017 Tour de France, which prompted the Groupama-FDJ coaching staff to lighten his racing workload in the early part of the season.
The approach also appeared to pay off in the spring, as Démare won a stage at Paris-Nice and placed on the podium at Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem, hence the decision to follow the same tack this time out.
"My preparation is the same as last year," Démare said. "It's my fourth or fifth time coming to the Volta ao Algarve. It's a very good preparation race for the Classics because you get a lot of kilometres in with the long stages. It’s very good. Obviously, I’d prefer to have won than to have finished second twice, but, voilà, it’s like that."
Démare is just four days into this 2019 campaign but his early form line extends beyond his twin second places in the Volta ao Algarve’s bunch sprints. He held on longer than any other sprinter when Team Sky forced the pace on the Alto do Fóia on stage 2 before placing a fine 6th in the time trial the following day. That display was, he said, a product of his strength training over the winter rather than any specific work on the time trial bike.
"I'm more and more resistant,” Démare said. "I did a good time trial here in 2017, too, I finished 6th then. Last year I was 14th here. I enjoy real time trials like that, where you can show your power. But if you put me in a time trial like the ones for climbers at Paris-Nice, then I'm non-existent…"
Démare will line out at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne next week, where he will lead a Groupama-FDJ Classics unit that has been boosted by the arrival of Stefan Küng, winner of Friday’s time trial. "The legs are good, and that’s encouraging for what’s to come. It’s the Opening Weekend next and I've often been good there, so I hope that can continue," said Démare, who placed second in Kuurne a year ago – behind Groenewegen, the man who beat him on Saturday.
Major appointments litter Démare's calendar from now until the middle of April, when, once again, he will set out from Compiègne as the man most likely to emulate Guesdon and bridge the 22-year gap to France’s last Paris-Roubaix victory.
"I would say that my condition is reassuring," Démare said. "It’s reassuring but you never know, there's always the worry that you might have a setback at any point. But logically from now to Paris-Roubaix, it’s really only a month and a half. That's very short. The legs are good already and I hope they can improve another bit."
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