Frédéric Guesdon (FDJ-Big Mat) is the last French winner of Paris-Roubaix, the legendary French cycling monument. Guesdon won the race in 1997 and this time around he’s riding his last race of his long career. One of the many young riders flanking Guesdon is Steve Chainel who hopes to become the next French winner of the biggest French one-day race.
When walking up to the FDJ-Big Mat team bus on Saturday a big sticker grabs the attention. It titles ‘Merci Fred’ and shows a young Frédéric Guesdon who’s lifting his 1997 Paris-Roubaix cobble trophy in the air at the vélodrome in Roubaix. On Sunday, the 40 year-old Frenchman not only rides his last Hell Classic but also his last race as a professional cyclist.
“I've changed a lot," Guesdon said. "Back then I was a bit fat and chubby; I was young but won Paris-Roubaix. Now we’re fifteen years later and we’re back at Paris-Roubaix. arriving with mixed emotions. I’m excited because it’s a race that I love but since I’m not in top form I’m also feeling down-hearted."
Back in January at the Tour Down Under the Frenchman received a huge blow when a crash resulted in a broken hip. At first it was questionable that he would ever get back on the bike, later it seemed that he would not get ready for Paris-Roubaix but in the end Guesdon made great progress. On the eve of the race he’s ready to go although not at 100 per cent. The fact that the team figured they should pay tribute to Guesdon meant they respected him a lot. “I’m not often thinking about it but it seems like I left my mark,” Guesdon said.
After rolling in from their easy training ride on Saturday morning, teammate Steve Chainel heralded Guesdon. When being asked about the sticker, Chainel felt it wasn’t anything special. “It’s normal. He left his mark at the Classics. He’s the last French winner of Paris-Roubaix and hopefully I’m the next one,” 28 year-old Chainel said.
Chainel wasn’t confident it would happen in 2012. “To do so I should stop doing cyclo-cross,” Chainel laughed. The Frenchman rides a busy schedule of European cyclo-cross races during the winter months. Lars Boom (Rabobank) opted to cut in his cyclo-cross calendar. It allowed him use the winter to build up the endurance which is needed at the cycling monuments like Milano-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix; the distances at all these races are over the 250 km.
“The distance is no problem. I did the 300 km of San Remo and finished well. Paris-Roubaix suits me much less than the Belgian classics as it requires a much longer and ‘whining’ effort. It’s the hardest race of all for me to finish,” Chainel said.
"It’s still unclear whether or not rain will fall on the course before or during the race. A more muddy course might suit the technical skills of the cyclo-cross rider. “For me personally it would be best if it rained before so the cobbles are slippery. If it rains during the race it’s tricky.”
The hopes of the French rely mainly on the performance of Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma - Quick Step), while there are some outsiders who showed good form lately like Tony Gallopin (Radioshack-Nissan). “Despite that I come here with the desire to do well as this is a French race and I’m a French rider. On the other hand I realize that if I want to reach out for the win I need to be at my top, arriving here physically at 110 per cent. I need to anticipate and make it through the race without mechanicals, crashes and punctures," Chainel said.
“We don’t have one leader. We’re a homogeneous block. Mathieu Ladagnous is currently riding best of all, there’s also William Bonnet who loves this race the most and Fred Guesdon who has the experience. I think he can crack the top ten. Nothing is impossible. Last year Johan Vansummeren won when nobody expected him to do so; he’s a strongman though. We’re not expected to win the race but we should be able to get a result by anticipating. We’ll try to be adventurous and try to ride a nice race.”