I think it would be fair to say that this has been more of a season-long encounter rather than a one-off interview, reflecting the very hectic work load of a Directeur Sportif. Lionel Marie is one of five DSs at Orica-GreenEDGE and is a rare beast, in that he is not a former professional cyclist. However, he is a man with all the relevant academic qualifications to go with his bags of on-the-job experience.
Sheree: Do you come from a family of cyclists?
Lionel: Far from it, my parents weren’t even keen on me cycling and still really aren’t all that interested in the sport but my grandfather was a keen cyclist. A neighbour first took me for a ride when I was about 12 but my parents wouldn’t allow me to race until I was 17. I was inspired by Bernard Hinault who, like me, hails from the north of France – I admired his aggressive qualities on the bike.
Sheree: A Frenchman on an Aussie squad. How did you end up at Orica-GreenEDGE?
Lionel: It’s a bit of a long story. After school, I studied for a degree in Sports Education and then took further qualifications, specialising in cycling. I started my career in northern France, training school children, progressing after four years to a regional role at the Cycling Federation in Normandy where I was responsible for selecting and developing the younger riders in all disciplines – road, track and cyclo-cross. In 2000, Roger Legeay, team manager at Credit Agricole, approached me to work as a coach and DS at the U23 feeder team where I was fortunate to work with many of those who are now well-known French riders. But sadly, four years later, the arrival of the ProTour signalled the end of the feeder team as all the available financial resources were needed to support the main team.
I had offers from a number of other squads but chose to work at Cofidis alongside Francis Van Londersele – like me a career coach, not a former rider. It was here that I worked for the first time with riders from other countries, riders such as Stuart O’Grady and Matt White whose humour and esprit de corps I really appreciated. In fact, such was my relationship with Matt that I followed him to Slipstream Sports in 2008 when the team was still only ProContinental and largely operating on the US circuit. When Matt left what had then become Garmin in December 2010, I told him I’d be more than happy to work with him again. My chance came at the end of 2011 with GreenEDGE, the first of many Australian projects to really get off the ground and enter cycling at the top level.
Sheree: The culture and dynamics at both Garmin and GreenEDGE must be very different to those on the French teams?
Lionel: Yes, they are. The biggest difference is that the newer teams are not weighed down by historical baggage. They tend to be more open-minded, particularly towards new ideas and new technology, which I find particularly interesting and personally challenging.
Sheree: You must be delighted at the way things have developed this year at Orica-GreenEDGE. The team has had a very successful maiden year with a number of riders scoring points and winning big races such as Milan-San Remo.
Lionel: We couldn’t have gotten off to a better start with Simon Gerrans winning his home tour. If we’re honest, it’s probably worked out better than anticipated and I feel we’ve met, maybe even exceeded, the high expectations. The Australians love their sports and they now have a team to get behind much in the same way the British have Sky.
Sheree: We saw one another quite a few times during the Tour. I couldn’t get over the oppressive press presence. Didn’t you get fed up with everyone asking you how you were going to beat [Mark] Cavendish?
Lionel: Not really, it’s a valid question and I’m still not sure we, or indeed anyone else, have come up with a satisfactory answer. I can only promise that we’ll keep trying.
Sheree: Many criticised this year’s Tour de France for being boring. Do you agree?
Lionel: No, not at all. Remember, I’ve worked with Bradley Wiggins at both Cofidis and Garmin. Indeed, I introduced him and David Millar to O.Symetrics so I might just have had a little part to play in Bradley’s victory.
Sheree: Am I right in saying the O.Symetric oval-shaped rings only really work if you have a beautifully supple pedal stroke and a naturally high cadence?
Lionel: Yes, that’s right. The guy who invented them comes from down here [Cote d’Azur]. But it’s not just about the equipment, both riders [Wiggins and Millar] are supremely talented and have those slightly off-the-wall characters that tend to separate good riders from great ones.
Sheree: So, why wasn’t the Tour boring?
Lionel: There was much to admire about Sky’s rigorous planning and thorough preparation. There’s much we, and other teams, can learn from them. They have a particularly disciplined way of working and I consider myself fortunate to have had an opportunity to visit their HQ in Manchester and observe them at work. The way they leave nothing to chance and the level of expertise they have at their disposal is impressive.
Sheree: Does this mean that Orica-GreenEDGE has their own chef?
Lionel: Yes, rider nutrition is just one of the many pieces of the puzzle we have addressed.
Sheree: So run me through a typical day for you at one of the Grand Tours.
Lionel: Up at 06:30 for a quick run before breakfast. After packing and putting the bags on the bus, I’d check out the day’s weather forecast and go over the map for the day’s stage again. We typically liked to get the bus and riders parked up around 90 minutes before the start of the stage. Matt handled the briefing of the race day strategy while I went over the race route drawing the riders’ attention to areas where it might be useful to attack or be on one’s guard. I’d also advised on the likely weather conditions. At Grand Tours we have three directeur sportifs. I’d travel with Matt in the first car while our third directeur would drive the second one. Typically, he’d look after all the team’s logistical issues. After the stage, we’d have a debriefing with the riders in the bus but once we, and they, left the bus, we stopped talking about racing to leave them adequate time for massage, rest, recuperation and dinner. As we’d have only eaten a sandwich at lunch, the entire staff sat down to dinner together and then we’d finally be in bed somewhere between midnight and one o’clock in the morning.
Sheree: Wow, that’s a long day!
Lionel: Yes, it generally takes me a week following a Grand Tour to recover.
Sheree: What about other Tours and one-day races. How do you prepare for these?
Lionel: Obviously, the Tour de France is the most stressful of all the Grand Tours. The Giro and Vuelta tend to be more relaxed and convivial. At other stage races, there’ll be only one DS, so there’s more work but it’s frankly nowhere near as hectic.
Planning for some of the major one-day races tends to start early. For something like Paris-Roubaix we’ll start discussions in December to ensure that we have the right equipment, particularly tyres. At Milan-San Remo, the riders will be briefed in detail the night before rather than on the morning of the race because it’s such a long race.
Sheree: One thing I did observe at the Tour from you and the other DSs was what I’d call “everyone singing from the same hymn sheet”. Have you all been trained to deal with the media?
Lionel: Yes, it’s an important part of our job promoting the culture and ethics of the team and it also helps us to better deal with those journalistic traps.
Sheree: What about training camps to prepare for certain races.
Lionel: Yes, we’ll do those too. For example, we held one for the World Championship team time-trial in Valkenburg. We also hold camps on different continents. The Aussies head back home in the winter to prepare for their national championships and the Tour Down Under. So we’ll have stages for them in Australia and others in Europe for the remainder of the team.
Sheree: We’ve spoken of your friendship and working relationship with Matt White, who has stood down as DS while the team conducts an investigation. If I’m honest, I’d prefer former riders who’ve doped to counsel and guide the current crop of riders on how to avoid those dangers rather than a more rigid and less forgiving “throw the baby out with the bathwater” approach. What are your thoughts?
Lionel: Matt was a rider in a bygone era. He’s a fantastic man-manager with some really inspirational qualities: he breathes cycling. In the past five years, we’ve worked very closely together and his integrity has never been in question. I’m proud to call him my friend.
Sheree: Anything else you’d like to share with us?
Lionel: No, other than saying I consider myself to be very fortunate to have a job I really love doing.
Sheree:Lionel, many thanks for your time. It’s been illuminating chatting to you and I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you and Orica-GreenEDGE an even more successful second season. Maybe you’ll find the key to beating Cav!