Historical. Against all comers on Sunday afternoon in Grand-Champ, the Groupama-FDJ cycling team and Arnaud Démare managed to conquer another French champion’s jersey. After a huge work from his teammates over 233 of the 237 kilometers that were on the menu today, the sprinter made the last efforts by himself in the final to follow several brutal attacks of Julian Alaphilippe. He eventually found himself in contention for the title with the latter and Bryan Coquard as well. However, being on top of his game at the moment, no one could deny him the victory in the final sprint. After 2014 and 2017, Arnaud Démare is crowned for the third time while the Groupama-FDJ cycling team wins its eleventh title on the road.
“We manage to unite everyone with a project”, Yvon Madiot
“Solidarity was the key word today,” said Arnaud Démare on Sunday afternoon, a few minutes after he crossed the finish line of the French championship as a winner. It was indeed necessary throughout the 237 kilometers of the Grand-Champ course, made of thirteen laps of eighteen kilometers. Considered by everyone, riders as well as cycling followers, as the main favourite for the event, Arnaud Démare was aware that his opponents would give him a hard time. Groupama-FDJ was also aware that they would have to control the race all by themselves. That’s exactly what happened from the end of the first lap on, when a group of nine riders went up the road. The team sent David Gaudu in the front, as a guarantee but mostly started its work at the front of the bunch. They did it alone, of course, and first with the young guys of the development team Hugo Page and Théo Nonnez. From then on, for almost half of the race, the race unfolded in a very usual way, with the breakaway riding three to four minutes ahead of a quite calm bunch. Then, while Pierre Latour and Valentin Ferron went to form a duo in front after six laps, some disorder started back in the peloton. With almost a hundred kilometers to go, attacks came from all sides, and from all teams, aiming to isolate Arnaud Démare as much as possible.
Several groups then went up the road, but their advantage over the peloton led by Groupama-FDJ never exceeded a minute. “We witnessed a tight-knit team,” said Arnaud Démare in his post-race interview. “From start to finish, we never get divided. We were attacked from all sides but we remained united, the team was very strong. We were able to keep up the pace, first with the young guys from the Conti who did a great job, then with the more experienced guys. They all did a tremendous job”. “We got there as the favourites and we took on this role by taking the race in control from the start,” added Yvon Madiot. “We showed our ambitions very quickly and everyone understood that we were riding for Arnaud. We were attacked almost throughout the whole championship but the team was quite formidable, solid and united. I think what makes the difference is that we are riding for a lone leader. We manage to unite everyone with a project and a tactic”.
“Anthony told me: if Julian attacks, follow him!”, Arnaud Démare
With fifty kilometers to go, a fairly substantial breakaway took shape as the bunch was just bringing back all the leaders. Sixteen men then took the lead in order to weaken the collective strength around Arnaud Démare. However, they remained in sight of the bunch, with only a 30-seconds gap. They even entered the last lap with the same gap. The final attacks, and undoubtedly the most dangerous ones, were obviously anticipated. The first one came from Florian Sénéchal, together with Romain Bardet, but Groupama-FDJ also speeded up the pace, which was clearly needed. “I was a little bit doubtful entering the last lap, especially since there were a lot of them in front,” admitted Arnaud. “They may have looked at each other a bit but above all, when our time trialist Benjamin Thomas started to pull, we gained seconds and seconds. We went through the corners with a good speed and I thought we were going to close the gap quite quickly. That’s what happened.” However, the most feared attack was yet to come. Julian Alaphilippe eventually made it with only four kilometers to go, after a devastating turn from Florian Sénéchal. “We all knew Julian was going to attack,” smiled Arnaud. “Before he attacked, the bunch was already scattered. I knew it was going to be tough but Anthony Roux told me: if Julian attacks, follow him.”
Julian Alaphilippe indeed attacked, as strong as he usually does, and Arnaud Démare hung on, 20-30 meters behind the Deceuninck-Quick Step’s rider. The two men started battling from distance for a few hundred meters before Bryan Coquard also joined the fight, and took a few turns with the Groupama-FDJ’s sprinter in order to close the gap. “My few time trial trainings proved to be useful to come back,” smiled Arnaud Démare. After a final attempt from Alaphilippe closed by the Milan-Turin winner in the last kilometre, a three-man sprint was then going to decide the new French champion. “This three men final was really special,” Arnaud said. “I was going a little into the unknown as I only experienced this kind of situation a little, but I remembered Paris-Nice 2017, where I got to the finish with Alaphilippe and beat him. I was careful also to Bryan, with his track record and his speed. With the headwind, I was really scared of missing this out, but in the end, the legs lived up to my expectations and I was able to launch and then resist.”
“It’s my most beautiful title”, Arnaud Démare
Clear winner on the line, ahead of Coquard and Alaphilippe, the three-time French champion put both arms in the air, with a feeling of strength coming out of him similar to the one he’s shown since the season restart. Arnaud Démare was the main favourite and was aware that he would get a hard time. It did, but eventually the mission was accomplished, in style. “This title is completely different from the other two, but it is the most beautiful, both collectively and individually”, he claimed at the finish. “To come back as I did on Julian, who is the best puncher in the world right now… It’s an exceptional title”. General manager Marc Madiot passionately experienced this title from the team bus. “It was intense and stressful,” he said. “The money time in a championship is always special and there is only one place that matters. On top of that, it was an explosive final; a great championship final, which I think will go down in history. We often think that we have more riders than the others, but we are not. We just put everything we have into it. There is solidarity, momentum, confidence and serenity in this group. The guys give more than usual on this particular day and the young guys of la Conti already want to come back again! “
With this fifth victory – and what a victory – in eighteen days, Arnaud Démare now appears as the most prolific rider since the season restart. “Since Milan-Turin and the Tour de Wallonie, I feel very confident” he confirmed. “Yesterday the guys told me during the recon that it wasn’t that easy, but I still had good feelings about it. Right now, nothing is stopping me. It’s an incredible feeling”. Another proof of the stature he got in recent days, the national coach informed him during the protocol that he was finally selected for the next European Championship, not far from there, in Plouay. And one can say that with the way he’s riding at the moment, an European champion’s jersey could well be added to the French champion’s shirt on Wednesday.