Total Direct Energie team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau tried but failed to sign Julian Alaphilippe for 2020, but he hopes his riders can be inspired by their fellow Frenchman's panache as they try to compete against far wealthier and far stronger WorldTour teams.
Total Direct Energie topped the Professional Continental team rankings in 2019 and so have secured an automatic place in all the 2020 WorldTour races. They are likely to ride the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France but may give up a place in the Vuelta a Espana and other races so they can balance racing aggressively with trying to score precious ranking points and thus secure their top spot and another automatic place in the Tour de France for 2021.
Bernaudeau is stuck between trying to recreate the emotions of the success that Thomas Voeckler gave his team for many years and the hard reality of survival in professional cycling.
"Alaphilippe makes races unpredictable, less controllable, so that it's not just the richest who win. That's what inspires me and that's what I want my team to do. Along with Thibaut Pinot, Alaphilippe restored nobility to our sport. We can't let that disappear again," Bernaudeau told Philipe Brunel of L'Equipe in a long interview.
Bernaudeau's own riders struggled at the Tour de France but he was inspired by Pinot and Alaphillipe's aggressive racing.
"Their panache made up for my frustrations. What they did on the road to Saint-Etienne (when they attacked together and gained time in the GC), with that touch of necessary madness, hadn’t been seen for a long time. We can only thank them because the fans loved it," Bernaudeau suggested.
Against 'radio-controlled riders, who have no brain'
Bernaudeau raced in the seventies and eighties and loved to be aggressive and outspoken, and he still is. As a team manager, Bernaudeau has always rebelled against race radios, power meters in races and directeurs sportifs deciding a race strategy from the team car; he believes they stifle aggression and initiative.
"It seems that radios are equal to a few extra watts, at least to the radio-controlled riders, who have no brain," he said dismissively. "But for what I know, a directeur sportif can’t determine the precise moment when a race is decided in a tenth of a second, depending on how they feel.
"Don't talk to me about radio being needed for safety reasons, that's a fake problem. When William Bonnet crashed in 2015 on the road to Huy at the Tour, it was because everyone had been told via radio to move up before a left turn. There was hysteria in the peloton. The radios provoked the crash instead of preventing it.
"At Total, I want intelligent, virtuous riders like Voeckler, who was able to restore hope [during the Lance Armstrong years] when there was none. I want them like Alaphilippe who doesn’t hold back or follow a strategy. He helped to shake up French cycling and showed anything is possible. That can only help in the future.
"A strategy can be decided during a pre-race briefing but the watts and UCI points can't be the decisive factor in deciding a race, it all depends on what the fans want to see. And at the Tour, they were there because Pinot and Alaphilippe had panache and the public loved it. Nobody can argue against that. I don’t think they needed race radio in the finale at Saint-Étienne or on the Tourmalet, they seized the moment."
Despite his love of inspired racing, Bernaudeau admits he will have to curb his panache in 2020 as his riders chase ranking points. Total Direct Energie have a guaranteed place in all the WorldTour races they want to ride but must also fight to score as many ranking points as possible to ensure they again top the rankings and secure automatic invitations to the sports biggest races in 2021.
Bernaudeau can only hope that Niki Terpstra is back to his best after an injury-hit first season with the French team. Lillian Calmejane, Niccolo Bonifazio, and Adrien Petit remain in the total Direct Energie roster for 2020.
"I'd banned the words 'top 10 and 'UCI points' from my vocabulary because they'd turned racing into a numbers game and made it boring but I had to use them this year," Bernaudeau admitted bitterly.
"Today's riders prefer the security offered by a place in the top ten and the points that go with it, rather than taking a risk to try to win the race. We raced with the obsession of scoring a maximum number of points and we topped the ranking despite the bad luck that hit Terpstra. But it cost us dearly at the Tour, which was hard and violent, and where many of my riders started tired and then suffered."
Bernaudeau's desire to follow his instinct and race with panache will again clash with the reality of the UCI rankings in 2020 and the fight for points and that much-prized automatic invitation to the Tour de France and other WorldTour races in 2021.
"The new rules were made official on October 22 and so it was too late to hire, so I've worked with what I've got," Bernaudeau.
"Calmejane would love to ride the Giro d'Italia but we'll see if it's doable. We'll continue to chase points to hold onto our first place even if it won't be easy. We're facing competition, Arkea-Samsic have signed Quintana and Bouhanni. In the future the places in the Tour will be cost more and will only be obtained thanks to a strong team effort."