The Big Feature: Interview with FDJ’s Sebastien Chavanel’

I’m chatting to one of VeloVoices’ guest columnists Seb Chavanel who last year shared his experiences with us as poisson-pilote for French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni. This year he’s fulfilling a similar role for Arnaud Demare and the duo will be in action at this weekend’s Vattenfall Cyclassics in Hamburg. 
Sheree: Why don’t you tell us about how and when you started racing? 

Seb: I started riding when I was six because my dad rode and I loved watching the Tour. I began racing on the weekends when I was 12 with my friends and it seemed to help the week pass more quickly. I still worked hard at school as it was never my intention initially to be a professional rider. When I was 20, and training to be a landscape gardener, I was invited to join a new French first division team sponsored by Agritubel which offered me the opportunity to work in its factory. I terminated my studies and started working the early shift which left me plenty of time for training. I won numerous races in the Loire-Atlantique region and in 2002 I was taken on by Vendee U (now Europcar) and became a full-time professional racer.

2003 Seb at Brioche La Boulangere (image: Cycling Archives)

A much younger version (Image: Cycling Archives)

Looking back, I can say I’ve had an interesting career with plenty of highs (19 victories) and lows and today I’m back at WorldTour team FDJ with my wife Sophie [head physio at FDJ].

Sheree: In 2011, you went back to Europcar for the second time.

Seb: Yes, FDJ decided to place their sprinting faith in [Yauheni] Hutarovich and Tommy Voeckler petitioned for me to rejoin the team. This allowed me to continue my career, for which I thank him. Then I became Bryan Coquard’s poisson-pilote after I’d been paired up with him earlier as his mentor.

Sheree: I remember reading about that in Velo magazine. 

Seb: I really got my head down at Europcar, trained seriously for my new role and learned to be happy just doing my job and being part of a winning team. That’s the mentality you have to develop when you’re at a certain age and stage in your career. When you’re young at the start of your career you have to maintain your ambitions to win but afterwards realism arrives and you have to find your role within the team. That’s what’s important.

Sheree: What do you most enjoy about your current role on the team?

Seb: I bring lots of experience to the team. I like mentoring the younger riders and passing on the benefit of that experience. It’s not because I’m a great rider but it’s because I analyse what works and what doesn’t. In the future, I’d like to be a directeur sportif. I took and passed the UCI exams in 2013 so I’m ready when my contract with FDJ ends in December 2016.

Sheree: You’re always very calm and chilled when I see you at races. It’s good to have a road captain who can think on his feet – or should that be pedals? – and can radiate calm and confidence to the rest of the team. I’m sure you’ll make a great DS.

Seb: I hope I’ll be as supportive as [Marc] Madiot. When you’re young and things aren’t going well you can be easily thrown off course by an injury or self-doubts. You lose your way and bouff your career is over. That’s why you need to listen, draw strength from those around you who are more experienced and get back on track. It’s not enough to have good legs. A lot of it is in your head. Each loss is a learning experience but you have to learn the lesson and move on, don’t keep looking back. You have to be professional, tolerant and always give of your best.

Sheree: Wise words! Which are your favourite races and which one would you most like to win?

Birthday boy Seb celebrating on the eve of this year's Milan San Remo (image: FDJ)

Birthday celebrations on the eve of this year’s Milan-San Remo (Image: FDJ)

Seb: Milan-San Remo – which I’ve only ridden once – Paris-Tours, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Gent-Wevelgem. They’re races for sprinters but with something extra. You might say a greater physicality and they’re raced a bit more strategically. I’d love to win Milan-San Remo because I adore Italy. If I could choose, I think I’d rather win that race than a stage of the Tour de France. Though both would be good!

Sheree: You were injured (badly bruised thigh) in an incident with a neutral service vehicle at the Tour of Flanders. These types of accidents seem to be on the increase. Why is that?

Seb: Everyone, not just the riders, is under so much stress at the bigger events.

Sheree: Well, let’s turn to the biggest event, the Tour de France – a race of peaks and troughs this year for FDJ?

Seb: Yes, initially we were all working for Thibaut Pinot but when he lost time and dropped out of contention our tactics changed and we looked for stage wins. Pinot kept trying for a win and it all came good in the end with a prestigious victory atop Alpe d’Huez. We were very happy and relieved on that final Saturday evening.

Sheree: And you were the lanterne rouge?

Just in the nick of time: a bad day in the Alps (image: FDJ)

Just in the nick of time: a bad day in the Alps (Image: FDJ)

Seb: (laughs) It wasn’t my intention though from my perspective it doesn’t matter if you’re 100th or last. I had a bad day in the Alps, a lot of riders dropped out and I found myself in last place. But I made it to Paris. That’s what counts.

Sheree: Indeed it does. Have you read the piece about you in Rouleur? No, then I’ll send you a copy. There’s a lovely quote about you in it that really sums up why I love the sport:

It is spirit such as his [Seb Chavanel] that draws us all to professional cycling, and why finishing last at the Tour de France is an achievement of such immeasurably greater magnitude than victory in lesser sports.

Sheree: How did you and Sophie first meet?

Seb: I met her when I arrived at FDJ for the first time in 2007. She massaged me and the rest is history. We got married in 2008.

Sheree: That was quick!

Seb: We’ve a great partnership. We keep one another motivated largely because we both love one another and our jobs.

Sheree: What do you do to relax at home?

Seb: I spend a lot of time in the garden. I hardly ever watch TV, apart from sport, and I listen to lots of music.

Sheree: Do you do Spotify lists for FDJ?

Seb: No, I’m really low tech. Sophie and I also enjoy cooking together.

Sheree: I’ve heard you’re a dab hand on the BBQ?

Seb: (laughs) Aren’t all men? Or, at least, we think we are!

Sheree: What’s your favourite dish? 

Seb: La pasta Italienne, served al dente – I could eat pasta every day. Then I love Sophie’s recipe for chocolate mousse which doesn’t contain any additional sugar. It’s soooo good. And, of course, I enjoy a good wine.

True love: Sophie and Sebastien (image: Sheree)

True love: Sophie and Sebastien (Image: Sheree)

Sheree: How do you maintain your weight?

Seb: I eat lots of fresh products, vegetables from the garden and fish – no processed food. We eat what we like but eat well.

Sheree: Does FDJ have its own chef?

Seb: Yes, we had one for the first time in Paris-Nice 2014 and that’s continued.

Sheree: Damm, another career door closed. You speak and write English well but you’ve only ever ridden for French teams, why?

Seb: I’ve never had the opportunity to ride for a foreign team, maybe one day … I’m proud that I learnt English and, as a consequence, I think riders in the peloton see me as someone who’s more open.

Sheree: Well thanks for being so open with us, Seb, good luck at Vattenfall and don’t forget to invite me to your next BBQ!

4 thoughts on “The Big Feature: Interview with FDJ’s Sebastien Chavanel’

  1. Pingback: VeloVoices Awards 2016: Lifetime Achievement Award | VeloVoices

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