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From Inside Peloton: Le Coq

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There is a new generation of French riders that is no longer happy to just make up the numbers and play the role of plucky loser that its compatriots have been for several years and, at just 21 years of age, Bryan Coquard is the latest to make it to the top level.

Words: Ben Atkins
Images: Yuzuru Sunada

Armed with an Olympic silver medal, won in the Omnium on the London track last summer, the affable sprinter from Nantes has become the latest rider to make the transition from the track to the road, and so far—it would seem—so good.

“My nickname is ‘Le Coq’ because of ‘Coquard,’ and my legs are very skinny,” he laughs as we sit down together during March’s Tour de Langkawi and, as I can’t help noticing the unmistakeable logo on his training shoes, he adds: “This year Le Coq Sportif is a sponsor of Europcar, so that’s really good!”

Bryan Coquard was born almost seven years after the last of Bernard Hinault’s five Tour de France victories, and was just six years old when the Affaire Festina rocked cycling, and consigned a whole generation of Frenchmen to the slow end of the peloton that was riding ‘à deux-vitesses.’ Consequently, he had few national heroes to look up to as he watched a succession of foreigners dominate his country’s biggest races so, rather than looking up the riders, it has been the events themselves that inspired him.

“I’m not a guy for heroes,” Coquard tells me. “I think my hero is the Tour de France. When I was very young I saw the Tour de France and that was the start of my dream. When I was very young I had two dreams: the Olympic Games and the Tour de France.

“Last year I finished second in the Olympic Games, and I’m hoping for my second dream at the Tour de France soon.”

The image of French track cyclists is normally one of the big sprinters of recent years, like Arnaud Tournant, Florian Rousseau and Grégory Baugé. Again, Coquard had few successful French endurance riders to inspire him, so why did the young man from Loire-Atlantique choose to specialise on the boards?

“Because I am very fast!” he laughs. “I started on the track and then went to the road after. I don’t know … it’s because I like the atmosphere and the good feeling and the adrenalin of the racing. It’s for that I think.

“I started in US Pontchâteau—my club, where I’m known—and after that I went with Le Pôle France, the French team, in Bordeaux, with the French coach Eric Vermelun. I trained for four years in Bordeaux before the Olympic Games.”

That training saw the Frenchman take a near-perfect trajectory towards London 2012, where consistency in the World Cup classics saw him take the competition overall and, in the months before the Olympic Games, he finished fourth in the world championships, in Melbourne, Australia.

At London 2012, Coquard’s raw speed was illustrated by his fifth place in the flying lap and fourth in the kilometre time trial, but his bunch racing sense was what made the difference in his victory in the elimination, third in the scratch race and fourth in the points. Only his relative weakness in the individual pursuit prevented him from taking the gold medal; he finished twelfth out of the 18 competitors, while eventual Olympic champion Lasse Norman Hansen won it.

“It’s amazing, it’s a dream,” he says of his silver medal though. “It was a very difficult race, but I’m very happy. When I finished the last stage of the Omnium I was like a child. It was the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games is better than the most important races.”

With his Olympic mission complete, Coquard returned to the road for the remainder of 2012, where his year was capped with another silver in the under-23 World Championships in Valkenberg, Netherlands, before signing his first professional contract.

Having been brought up through Team Europcar’s feeder team, Vendée U, it was only natural that Coquard would sign for the dark-green professional continental outfit.

“It’s a good project, and very interesting, because in Vendée U you ride under the same conditions as Europcar in the professional team, and you are prepared for the world of the road in the same professional system,” he explains. “It’s better for starting your career, and when you start you know all of the group. I think the Vendée U and Europcar is the same.

“The boss of everything is Jean-René Bernadeau.”

The then 20-year-old then made a near-perfect start to his professional career with two stage victories in the Etoile de Bessèges, the traditional southern French season opener, then followed these with two stages of the Tour de Langkawi beating the likes of Langkawi, record-holder Andrea Guardini and Francesco Chicchi in the process.

As he crossed the line to take that first stage, Coquard made the unusual victory salute of pulling up his right jersey sleeve to show-off the distinctive tattoo beneath. No easy feat when travelling in excess of 60 kph, with some of the world’s best in your wake.

“The tattoo is the Olympic rings, because I won silver in London,” he explained to the post-stage press conference. “Before coming to this race I had a challenge with my directeur sportif Andy Flickinger; he said that if I win a stage I will have to show this tattoo.

“I’m very proud of this tattoo, because the silver medal for the Omnium at the Olympic Games is my best memory to date.”

Modestly, however, the young Frenchman knew his place in the sport, and that this one victory was not enough to challenge the greats just yet. Coming from a nation that has a saying or proverb for almost every occasion, Coquard knew exactly which one to choose.

“I don’t want to sell the skin of the wolf before I’ve killed it,” he smiled, which, roughly translated, means that he doesn’t want to count his chickens ….

There was more success on his return to Europe where, although he was unable to add to his win tally, his results included fifth in Paris-Camenbert and second in the GP Denain. Coquard received a 21st birthday present from the UCI on April 25, in the form of the leader’s jersey for the Europe Tour.

In the eight years since the continental circuits were established as a second level below the WorldTour, no Frenchman has ever taken victory in the season-long competition, although one of Coquard’s more famous teammates has spent some time leading it in the past.

“I think it is great to race in the white leader’s jersey for at least a month,” Coquard told the UCI at the time. “This jersey is quite familiar in our team, Team Europcar, because Thomas Voeckler wore it two years ago. I hope I will win a few races in this outfit.”

He wasn’t wearing it on May 11, when he took his next victory, however, as he was clad in the points jersey of the Tour Picardie as he beat German prodigy Marcel Kittel to the line on stage 2.

Five victories in the first few months of his first professional season will not be enough to draw Coquard away from what is his big aim for the next few years, however. The 21-year-old remains a trackie at heart and, having tasted glory at the Olympic Games once, wants to taste it again in Rio, Brazil, in 2016. The plan, for now anyway, is for Coquard to race the next two years on the road, before returning to the boards in 2015 to prepare himself again.

“Yes, I think this, in my mind,” he confirms to me in Langkawi. “The start of my career is very good, with four victories, but I like track—I love track—the track is my feeling, and I think two years before Rio I will go training for the track.

“I haven’t stopped training on the track,” he adds. “Every week I train one day on the track and in two years I think I will prepare for the Olympic Games.”

Rio is still a long way off, however, so surely there must be something he could achieve in the next two years that could change his mind and see him stay on the road.

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Maybe yes, maybe no. I love track. I think … the gold medal is a dream, but the Tour de France … it’s difficult.”

Fulfilling his second dream of winning at the Tour de France could be one of those things to make him change his mind, but having been successful so young, it’s easy to forget that Coquard is only just 21 years old. Not many riders get to the Tour so young, with the demands of the three-week race seen as too much. Mark Cavendish rode his first Tour at the age of 22, and probably only then as it started in the UK, and he sensibly pulled out on stage 8.

Even Bernard Hinault didn’t ride his first Grand Tours until he was 23 years old, but then—being Hinault—he did win both the Vuelta and the Tour. But that was Hinault ….

“This year I don’t know,” Coquard explains, as I ask him if he’s likely to take the start in Corsica. “I’m very young. It’s a very, very difficult race.

“It’s not my choice,” he adds. “If the coach told me okay then yes, I’m very happy. If the coach says it’s trop dur’ [too tough], then I say okay and attendre un an [wait a year]. If the coach says attendre un an, then okay. The Tour de France is a dream for me, but I’m very young, and it’s a difficult choice.”

The choice for Europcar is further complicated by the fact that it is already home to French stars Pierre Rolland and Thomas Voeckler, both of whom have big ambitions in the race again this year. Even if Coquard were not so young, whether there would be room to support a sprinter in a team with two general classification hopefuls is a big question.

“Certainly it’s difficult for the team,” Coquard laughs.

Sure enough, in his April interview with the UCI, Coquard confirmed that he will not be part of Europcar’s team on June 29th.

“We thought that it might be possible to race between seven and ten days and then pull out,” he explained. “But I know myself too well: I am a competitor and once I have started a race I find it traumatic to give up. Better to discover the Tour de France in 2014 when I will be better prepared.”

Tour de France or not, Coquard is currently one of a big new generation of French sprinters that includes Démare and Nacer Bouhanni at FDJ, and Adrien Petit at Cofidis. Many riders choose to remain as sprinters for their entire careers, while others adapt their racing style to take on other challenges.

Where Coquard’s career will take him, it’s too early to say.

“I don’t know, I’m very skinny.” Mountains? “No!” he exclaims. “No mountains, but I think the classics like Flèche Wallonne and the Amstel Gold Race, Gent-Wevelgem … it’s possible, but I’m very young. It’s my first season, for the moment I’m only a sprinter, and after years in a professional team, maybe.”

Having won the amateur version of the GP Plouay last season, shortly after the Olympic Games, Coquard proved that he can make it around some of the toughest classics courses. “And second in the world championships for under 23s, after the Cauberg,” he reminds me. “I don’t know, maybe.”

Whether Coquard remains, as he says, “only a sprinter,” or chooses to broaden his horizons, Le Coq Sportif seems certain to be at the vanguard of French cycling for many years to come.

From Issue 22. Buy it here!