A bit more than two weeks after reaching Verona with three stage victories and the cyclamen jersey in his pocket, Arnaud Démare resumed racing in the best possible way on Thursday on the Route d’Occitanie. After a long and – very – hot day, the French sprinter finished off the great teamwork in L’Isle Jourdain, settling the bunch sprint. He then took his fourth wins of the season, and the Groupama-FDJ’s seventh. He obviously also took the lead of the general classification.

“It was important to get off to a good start“, Sébastien Joly

For the opening stage on the 2022 Route d’Occitanie, the route was not completely fat between Séméac and L’Isle Jourdain, but it was not difficult enough either to prevent a bunch sprint at the end. Therefore, all eyes were on the Groupama-FDJ cycling team which lined up Arnaud Démare and part of his train at the start, as they returned from a successful Giro d’Italia. “It was important to get off to a good start today,” said Sébastien Joly. “Everyone recovered well even if they experienced some decompression after such a Giro. A large part of the staff and of the riders were doubling both races, and it was already nice to meet yesterday”. This morning, when a four-man breakaway including Oscar Cabedo (Burgos-BH), Wesley Mol (Bike Aid), Leo Danes (Team U Nantes Atlantique) and Jean Goubert (Nice Métropole Côte d’Azur) went from the start, Sébastien Joly and Franck Pineau’s men took their responsibilities straight away. Lars van den Berg took control and immediately set the pace. As a consequence, the leading four never enjoy a gap bigger than two minutes. “Lars did a great work throughout the whole day behind the four fugitives,” said Sébastien. “I was really happy for him, because he had ups and downs since the beginning of the year for various reasons. To see him performing at a good level here was really nice.”

An important parameter also influenced the course of the stage. “It was very hot, extremely hot”, said Sébastien. “We have not yet experienced these conditions this year. “It was important to drink, drink, and drink,” added Bram Welten. “Everyone wanted to manage their efforts because the heartbeat could go high very quickly”, added Arnaud Démare. “We saw that the bunch wanted to go slow because everyone was struggling with the heat”. With the support of other teams in the second half of the race, the gap to the breakaway gradually narrowed, and it was only one minute when the bunch got to the finish for the first time, with 38 kilometres to go. The quartet was eventually caught ten kilometres further, and although some small attacks occurred, nothing could jeopardize a bunch sprint in L’Isle Jourdain. “There was a small climb twenty kilometres from the finish where we stayed in a good position around Arnaud”, added Bram. “Everyone knew their role, and I think everyone did a great job.” The lead-out train really got into position five kilometres from the line behind Matthieu Ladagnous, before Ignatas Konovalovas enabled his teammates to enter the corner with 1500 metres to go in the top positions. “It was a strategic place”, said Sébastien Joly. The final sprint then approached, and the plans somehow changed.

“We could change in a split of a second”, Bram Welten

“Just before the last corner, Ramon had to make an effort and he screamed to tell me to change positions, as he was supposed to be the last lead-out man”, said Bram. “Fortunately, we understood each other, and we could change in a split of a second”. “They switched roles in the last kilometres, and it was kind of a first in this set-up”, confirmed Sébastien. “Ramon launched Bram very well, Bram perfectly led Arnaud out, and Arnaud did a very nice sprint”. Launched 175 meters from the line, the former French champion made a powerful sprint and kept the competition behind him to conquer his fourth win this year. “Everyone did a great job again, especially Lars who didn’t have an easy day. Hats off to him”, he said. “For me, it was a return to competition. I needed a big break after the Giro because I was tired, and it was difficult to get the engine back again. I was planning to do it on this Route d’Occitanie ahead of the championships. So I’m happy to win, it’s great!” After the line, he first celebrated with Bram Welten, who experienced his first victory as a lead-out man in the team. “I think we couldn’t have done better, and I’m very happy that we won,” said the Dutchman. “I really enjoy working on the train, I know it’s something I can be good at.” “Bram was recruited to play his card or be a lead-out man”, recalled Sébastien. “On his own, he recently thought about moving more into this lead-out role. It was a golden opportunity to put it in place today. It’s a good experience and it’s good that he naturally found his bearings with this group and Arnaud”.

Arnaud Démare obviously leads the Route d’Occitanie overall rankings on Thursday evening, but the event has only just begun. “Stage four can potentially finish with a sprint, and we also have ambitions for Attila on a punchy stage tomorrow and on the mountain stage on Saturday. We will be in action every day,” promised Sébastien Joly.

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