A great victory in many senses. On the long Avenue de Grammont, which traditionally hosts Paris-Tours’ finish, Arnaud Démare conquered one of his greatest victories on Sunday, in his very final race of the season. In a lively day through the vineyards, the former French champion took his responsibilities in the last climbs before a thrilling finale towards Tours. After bridging across the leaders in the last kilometre, the Frenchman claimed his ninth victory of the season thanks to a huge, 300-meter sprint. As a nice sign of history, he also became the first Frenchman to win the event since… Frédéric Guesdon, his day’s sports director, a winner back in 2006.
The day after the last Monument of the season, it was time for the last great Classic of the calendar on Sunday, from Chartres to Tours. On a route that experienced numerous changes over the last few years, the 115th edition of Paris-Tours also was the end of the 2021 season for a large number of riders. It was then time to leave it all on the road, and the Groupama-FDJ cycling team was very much willing to be active in the race, creating an echelon after barely thirty kilometers behind a leading trio. “We had a strong team at the start, so we wanted to make the race hard, especially to have many cards in the final,” explained the sports director Frédéric Guesdon. “We know that on these gravel roads, you can lose everything in a blink of an eye. We couldn’t play everything on one man only, so we wanted to have an elimination race to improve our chances”. The first move at the beginning proved unsuccessful, but it still gave an idea of what was coming. Subsequently, Rune Herregodts (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Julien Duval (AG2R-Citroën) and Gijs Leemreize (Jumbo-Visma) were able to take a seven-minute gap in the lead, but the peloton was again split up in the wind at halfway point. In a first bunch of around thirty riders, the team had Arnaud Démare, Stefan Küng and Olivier Le Gac, while the breakaway was caught twenty kilometers before the first vineyard sector.
“We told everyone to be aggressive”, Frédéric Guesdon
“We had three guys in front, but the gap never was very big and that allowed those who were still in the peloton to stay in the game,” said Frédéric. “Fortunately so, because a rider such as Valentin proved essential afterwards”. In the first sectors, Stefan Küng and Arnaud Démare remained careful within the leading group, but a trio made of Frédérik Frison, Franck Bonnamour and Stan Dewulf still took the race lead. With about thirty kilometers to go, the various chasing groups came as one, and Groupama-FDJ then started to make the race harder in La Rochère climb, with Ramon Sinkeldam leading up the way. Valentin Madouas took advantage of it to attack several times, which clearly reduced the bunch. The Breton was even joined with twenty kilometres to go by Stefan Küng, Arnaud Démare and a few others. In the penultimate climb, the young Frenchman gave it another go, and only five riders were able to go with him this time, including his teammate Arnaud Démare. The gap then narrowed to thirty seconds with the leaders, down to two after Frison’s puncture. “We didn’t want to have only one option”, Frédéric reminded us. “That’s why we told everyone to be aggressive. Valentin tried to get out, it didn’t work out, so he worked for Arnaud”.
And just like his teammates, Arnaud Démare was not willing to ride conservatively today. On the opposite, he made the decisive move himself in the Rochecorbon climb, the last one of the day. Jasper Stuyven fought hard to stay in the wheel as Valentin Madouas crossed the summit thirty meters behind, which proved too much to come back. “We had to take things in control,” assured Frédéric. “When you want a sprint finish, everything is up to you, and that might not be the best way to close the gaps. We had to attack to find ourselves with the best. That’s what happened with Stuyven. Both are fast, both are in good shape, both are winners and both had a reason to pull”. From then on, a real battle established itself between the Bonnamour-Dewulf duo and the Démare-Stuyven one in the last ten kilometres. “I didn’t know if we were going to make it,” confessed Arnaud. “We came back close thanks to the attack with Stuyven, but we then stayed just 10 seconds behind for a long time. We could see them, they were just there, but we couldn’t close the gap. I was a bit at the limit and I could see Jasper was also doing everything he could. We were coming back, but very slowly”. “At one point, I was scared we would never see them again, even though we knew they would look at each other in the final”, added Frédéric. “A rider much slower than Arnaud could have let Arnaud all the responsibility of the chase. Luckily it did not happen, and everything was back together in the final kilometre.”
“It’s very emotional”, Arnaud Démare
After the gap gradually narrowed, Arnaud Démare himself took the responsibility to close the last few meters after the flamme rouge. The final sprint only started a handful of seconds later. “I wanted to go from far,” said the rider from Beauvais. “I knew everyone was exhausted and that I could take the best of them by holding the sprint as long as possible. I really didn’t want to miss this. I saw the 250-meter sign, had the opening and went for it, with all my strength. I really felt I could do it, I didn’t crack and I really wanted to get that win”. Thanks to a long and powerful sprint, his specialty, Arnaud Démare took the lead and never let it go. With a bike-length on the line, he could then celebrate his victory in this iconic race with a deep shout. “Winning Paris-Tours after this difficult second part of the season is very emotional,” he commented a few minutes later with a broad smile. “I am really very happy. Lately, I haven’t gotten lucky, or haven’t had the legs I hoped for, but I’ve never given up. I think to my wife, with whom we did everything well to keep believing. And here we are, things finally went our way. It worked out today and that’s amazing. To win in the last race of the season, and in that way, it’s pure happiness. I have won some victories, but I will really enjoy this one”.
It is therefore on a high, and with a ninth win this season that Arnaud Démare can peacefully head to his holidays. “All victories feel good, but this one certainly more than others, especially for Arnaud who has been waiting for this since June”, concluded Frédéric. “We also had a disappointing Paris-Roubaix, so we’re happy to end the season with a victory (the 23rd for the team this year, note). I don’t like to say it saves his season, but it surely is going to do him good before tackling the next one. Everyone is aware that you can’t always be at the top of your game, and that you constantly have to question yourself. Arnaud won with style today, but we know he’s capable of that sort of thing. I hope that gives him some ideas for the future”. In the meantime, the Breton sports director has had to give away his status of “last French winner of Paris-Tours” (2006). “It makes me happy that a rider of the team takes my spot,” he said. “And if I needed to have a successor, at least I could take part in that victory. Therefore, I’m not completely written off the books!”