Our man in the peloton: Sebastien Chavanel’s race to the sun

It was great to catch up with VeloVoices’ guest voice Sebastien Chavanel after Paris-Nice and hear his account in person. Of course, he was smiling as it had gone well for his team FDJ: third place overall, two stage wins and two days in the yellow jersey. He confirmed that it’ll give the team plenty of confidence for the forthcoming races. But let’s backtrack a bit and go to the start of the race to hear what Seb had to say.

It was the team’s first big objective of the season and we had a two-pronged strategy for attacking the race. Firstly, there were three sprint stages for co-team leader Nacer Bouhanni. Secondly, with a number of finishes in the latter part of the race ideal for puncheurs, Arthur Vichot would share team leadership and aim for the overall.

FDJ - Team for Paris-Nice 2014 (image: FDJ)

FDJ – Team for Paris-Nice 2014 (Image: FDJ)

I would be Nacer’s poisson-pilote and we’d also have assistance from Geoffroy Soupe. Working for Arthur would be Arnold Jeannesson and Benoit Vaugrenard while Cedric Pineau and Anthony Geslin would be available to help both leaders. It was important for the team to protect both leaders during the early part of each stage given that the first few would be both nervous and prone to bordures (and crashes) thanks to strong winds. We would need to stay well up in the bunch.

Stage 1: Mantes-La-Jolie to Mantes-La-Jolie

As anticipated, it was nervous in the peloton with stretches of road exposed to the wind. There were lots of crashes. Nacer fell after 40km and banged up his knee. When he got back into peloton, he said to me:

Seb, I have to win here today as at the national championships in 2012 I also fell and went on to win.

He did the same today but I wasn’t there to lead him out because I’d been caught up in a pile-up with a number of key riders 5km from the finish. I was of course very disappointed not to have been able to fulfill my role but I was very happy that Nacer won the stage and took the leader’s jersey. He’s got a great temperament but, like all sprinters, he just loves to win. And, for the GC, the first stage was also good for us.

Stage 2: Rambouillet to Saint-Georges-sur-Baulche

Today we were leading the peloton and we got through the windy bits serenely because we were in charge of the situation, could impose our own rhythm, see exactly what was going on and had much less risk of being caught up in any falls. It was a nice feeling.

Unfortunately, at the finish Geoffroy was ill and so it was only me to help Nacer. I did my job up to 600 metres. Nacer was lying sixth or seventh on the false flat finish, but John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) was stronger and Nacer finished third. But he was happy and that sprint after sprint our efforts were combining well and, of course, he kept the leader’s jersey.

Stage 3: Toucy to Circuit de Never Magny-Cours

FDJ leading the peloton (image: Pressesports for FDJ)

FDJ leading the peloton (Image: Pressesports for FDJ)

The final sprint stage and once again we rode at the head of the peloton with Nacer in the maillot jaune and we were all set for another win until I was shoulder checked in the last 500 metres preventing me from dropping off Nacer. He was forced to brake at 70kph and it was all over. He finished a disappointed seventh and lost the leader’s jersey. Nacer confirmed:

I’m left feeling frustrated. I’m not in Paris-Nice to finish seventh. But with a stage win and two days in yellow, I fulfilled my objective and I cannot dwell too much on the loss of the third stage when there’s everything to play for Wednesday in Belleville!

Stage 4: Nevers to Belleville

Today had both a difficult climb and finish. Our priority now switched to Arthur who was well placed on GC. We worked all day for him and he managed to stay with the leading group.

After my work for the day was done, I rode in the gruppetto with Nacer to conserve energy for my work in the following stages. Arthur finished sixth, just five seconds back from the stage winner.

Stage 5: Creches-sur-Saone to Rive-de-Gier

Arthur was 11th on general classification and feeling good. The fifth stage was in wine-producing countryside and was another lumpy day. Nacer’s knee was troubling him and he abandoned after 90km.

The concluding stretch of the parcours included a 10km climb where Vincenzo Nibali attacked. But the objective was the same, to keep Arthur in contention for the overall. He finished in the main bunch. It didn’t matter that we didn’t win the stage, we were playing the long game.

Stage 6: Saint-Saturnin-les-Avignon to Fayence

Morale in the team was good having already achieved some of our objectives and that enabled us to feel more confident about the difficult stages to come. Friday’s stage into Fayence proved to be decisive for the overall.

The tactic was that the non-climbers, including me, would look after Arthur for the first two-thirds of the stage fetching him water, sheltering him, getting stuff from the car for him et cetera, while the other riders would look after him towards the end of a long and difficult stage with its uphill drag to the line in Fayence. Arthur stayed with the leading group, finished fifth and moved up the classification which made all our hard work worthwhile. It was another successful day. The rest of us finished in the gruppetto.

There was a really good ambience in the bus and around the dinner table that evening. No stress and really enjoyable racing!

Stage 7: Mougins to Biot Sofia Antipolis

All the non-climbers were a bit worried by Saturday’s profile and the early climbs. But, even though the peloton rode quickly up Col de Vence and Col de L’Ecre, we managed to hang on in there until the final circuit around Biot which is very difficult.

Fortunately Arthur was in great physical and mental condition and he had support from Arnold until he crashed, along with Sky’s Geraint Thomas, 5km from finish. Arthur was disappointed not to win, he was fifth again but he was now up to sixth on GC and looking forward to the last stage, as he was only five seconds off the podium.

Finishing in the top five means a lot to me. This is the first time I find myself in a leadership position in a WorldTour stage race. But I won’t be picky. If I keep this sixth place, I’ll leave very proud of my race performance. But I know that nothing is guaranteed, I will have to defend to the end. And tomorrow, I will try to do the best possible sprint and, why not, win … finally …

Stage 8: Nice to Nice

On the final day, once again we were all riding for Arthur  and we thought that this time he could win the stage as he’s pretty quick on a flat finish. I watched his win from the bus as the last circuit allows those of us whose day is done to head back early.

It was a great feeling watching Arthur catch the break in the dying metres of the race and he swung his right arm in an arch as he crossed the line in his national champion’s jersey. He knew the bonifications would be enough to take him onto the podium.

It was a great race for us! Two stage wins, two days in the leader’s jersey and third overall.

Podium l to r Coata, Betancur, Vichot (image: ASO)

Podium (l to r) Costa, Betancur, Vichot (Image: ASO)

Paris-Nice is the first big objective of the season for many teams, not just us, and we’d come out of it with our heads held high. This will give us confidence that we can repeat what we’ve done here in the forthcoming grand tours. We all had our jobs for the week and we can be happy that we were successful. Everyone was happy and left the race confident for the next challenge. It was an extraordinary week for us.

ClassementWorld Tour : @ArthurVichot 6e en individuel, #FDJfr 6e par équipes!

— EquipeFDJ.fr (@EquipeFDJ) 17 Mars 2014

Look out for more reports from Sebastien as the season progresses.

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