For the first time in its history, the Groupama-FDJ continental team welcomes a “local” rider. Not just any, since he is a European and multiple French champion. Throughout his junior years, Romain Grégoire has made a name for himself and built himself an impressive resume. Let’s get to know him better.
Rarely has a rider fresh out of the junior ranks benefited from such exposure and provoked such enthusiasm. Surely not everything, but a lot has already been said and written about Romain Grégoire. For the past few months, journalists and fans have gotten passionate, if not excited, with the young Frenchman. His explosion was sudden, and exponential, as he only started road cycling five years ago. Inspired by his father, a cycling enthusiast, he first discovered the sport through mountain biking around the age of six. However, the competition and its adrenaline did not come until much later, as a U12, when the trainer of his local club (ASPTT Besançon) brought him to a cyclocross. “I liked it almost immediately and started doing cyclocross races one after the other,” he recalls. “Eventually, it was cyclo-cross that got me on the road.” He soon joined the Amicale Cycliste Bisontine where he got the opportunity to practice these two new disciplines. But at the time, he was also busy with a third one. It wasn’t all about riding a bike. For a long time, he was also used to riding a horse. “I always practiced horse riding next to cycling, and I was really committed to it,” he says. “I started really young. From the age of three, I used to go to the stable. I loved that. I used to go there every week. I was doing a bit of competition. Seven levels are recognized by the national federation, and I passed them all. I think I wasn’t that bad. I liked the relationship with the horse, I liked everything about it, and I actually miss it a bit today”.
From performances in the woods to an unexpected first national title
Among the U16, his “desire to improve in cycling” led him to bring an end to his long-running passion. “Cycling started to take more importance and time,” he explains. “I was doing the cross and road seasons, so I was constantly into it. And I wanted to be even more so.” Especially since he was then getting his first results on the regional scene, although he was not yet used to victory. “I was always second behind Pierre Gautherat, another rider from the region who was very strong, and who is still strong”, he adds. “At the time, he was unbeatable, he would win everything, and we were always fighting for second place”. Too far from the Trophée Madiot’s rounds to compete against the best U16 on the road, Romain Grégoire therefore distinguished himself for the first time nationally in cyclocross, taking sixth place in the 2018 French championship. The following winter, he won the general classification of the EKZ Tour and finished third of the French Cup in his category. “Until the end of my U16 years, I was more cyclocross oriented,” he says. “That’s what I liked the most. From August, I would turn back into cyclocross mode. That was my goal for the year.” As he was used to facing good competition regionally, the young man had no real concerns about his abilities on the road either. They finally were validated in his last U16 year, as victories “started to be a little more shared” in his area, and as he came close to the medals on the French Championship Road race. “I was really disappointed to miss out on the podium because I had spent the whole race in the lead and I got passed on the line,” he recalls. “From there, however, I realized that I was able to get medals or a tricolour jersey, and that motivated me even more”.
At the end of 2019, he was selected for the “Van Rysel-AG2R La Mondiale” program, which allowed him to start his first Junior year with personalized support. While remaining a member of the Besançon club, he got the opportunity to measure himself, and soon to reassure himself, against people from his age. “I found myself with fifteen of the best French juniors, and because of the Covid crisis, we did at least three training camps together,” he said. “I might have realized that I had a decent level at that point. I also had a lot of markers in terms of numbers, watts. I knew that on paper, statistically, I could fight with the best juniors”. Like all of them in this year 2020 like no other, his possibilities to show himself were drastically reduced, but he managed to make the most of them. He won two stages on the Tour de la Région PACA Juniors and proved himself on his “only crossing point internationally” by taking second place in the Philippe Gilbert Juniors, in early October. Was he however expecting to become a French Champion a few weeks later? “Absolutely not! The route did not suit me, and most of all, I was not supposed to go there”, he explains. “I had planned to do the cyclocross French Cup that weekend, but it was cancelled a few days prior. Luckily, I managed to find a bib, I was able to start, but I was not at all prepared for that”. Forty kilometres from home, he could count on his family and friends’ support. Boosted with an extra adrenaline, and “having nothing to lose”, he slipped into the breakaway on the first lap. “They thought: “he is crazy?!”. Yes, I was crazy, but it paid off”.
An unstoppable breakthrough
This October 25, 2020, he wrote his “best memory, emotionally speaking, on the bike”. Yet, this was not a particular turning point for his approach towards cycling, as he’d been thinking about a pro career for a few months already. “I think this title just added a bit of pressure for the winter 20-21, because I really wanted to win with the tricolour jersey”, he adds. “I may have worked more seriously thanks to the jersey”. Therefore “very ambitious” starting his second year as a Junior, he aimed higher. Much higher. “I wanted an international title”, he says. “And looking at the routes, the European Championship became my number 1 objective”. After a start of the season with the Elites, during which he netted a podium on the Tour du Gévaudan, his first big goal did not go as expected. “I started the Junior season by taking a thrashing on the Classique des Alpes”, he confesses. “I had targeted this race, I would have liked to be up front, but I suffered a heat stroke and I finished super far”. This was going to be his only failure in 2021. Less than a month later, he won the Trofeo Guido Dorigo after a duel with the Belgian talent Cian Uijtdebroeks. “Considering the way he smashed us on the Classique des Alpes, everyone saw him as the new Evenepoel”, sums up Romain. “I really wanted to show that he was beatable, like everyone else. I took him like a normal rider, I went there with confidence, and that’s how I beat him. At that moment, that kind of clicked for me, and it surely did for many others”.
This was mid-June, and his prodigious season was definitely underway. In just a few months, Romain Grégoire almost achieved a clean sweep. First, he won the last stage of the Ain Bugey Valromey Tour, also turning the general classification around in his advantage, on July 14, with the tricolour jersey on his shoulders. He then became French time trial champion, retained his crown in the road race, won a stage at Aubel-Thimister-Stavelot (5th overall), finished fourth in the Course de la Paix, conquered that coveted European title in Trento, won silver at the World Championships in Louvain, took fifth in Paris-Roubaix and offered himself a thirteenth and final victory at the SPIE Internationale Juniorendriedaagse (4th overall). “From June, everything aligned really well, I entered a positive momentum that gave me a lot of confidence,” he says. “I took the races one after the other, without even having the feeling of winning everything. I just felt like I was riding my bike the way I usually do it, and like I had no win under my belt. You never get used to winning. It’s the same joy every time. I even think that the more I win, the more I want to win”. In half a year, the young man unintentionally became an attraction, so much so that his career choice for 2022 concentrated some talks during the offseason. His decision was made official in mid-November: he would join the “Conti” Groupama-FDJ.
“To climb the steps little by little” with the Conti
FFC – P. Pichon
In doing so, he joined an organization based about ten kilometres from his home, although he insists it was not the main reason for his choice. “I had two options: either I joined the French amateur field, or I already tried to professionalize”, he comments. “I might have been able to find a team that would accept me in the WorldTour this year, but I thought that would be cutting corners. Racing to get crushed on all the races, that did not interest me. The amateur environment could have been a bridge, but I thought that the continental level was much better, because I would have the opportunity to race at an intermediate stage, to show myself, perhaps to play for the win, while being in a much more professional environment in order to prepare for the future”. However, the location of the “Conti” certainly has advantages. “I have experienced some changes in my life lately, and one can change quickly, it can go to your head”, he argues. “Staying at home allows me to keep my feet on the ground, to stay in a familiar environment. It’s also much easier to stay in the university city I’m already in.” Registered in a Business and Administration Management degree adjusted over three years, Romain Grégoire should see the end of it by the spring 2023. “Studies have always been important, and I have never wondered about stopping”, he says. “Moreover, even if I ride 4-5h from time to time, it still leaves me time during the day to do something else. Going around in circles at home, staying in front of the TV, I don’t think that’s the best solution. It keeps me busy, and it’s also a university education for the post-career. If I manage to have a career…”
Since January 1, his professional career has started anyway. The soon-to-be 19-year-old rider (January 21st, editor’s note) is now an employee of a professional team. Even if the team does not belong to the very first division of world cycling, which other riders have decided to join straight from the junior ranks in recent years. This winter, three youngsters made that bet. “I may be more realistic than them… or maybe they will prove me wrong,” says Romain. “I think the transition does not happen like that, we are not all Evenepoel. Just with the continental level, I don’t have to pass one step, but two or three. Going into the WorldTour and fighting just to finish a race was not the right solution. I prefer to stay at continental level, in an age category that suits me more, so that I can also continue to win, to have fun on the bike and to climb the steps little by little. Also in training. I prefer to go through the stages quietly. I will keep an eye on them, of course, because I was fighting with them last year, but I will mainly focus on my own thing. A lot can change from one year to another, and we do not all evolve in the same way and at the same pace”. He knows, however, that his performances with the Conti will be just as followed as those of his former rivals. During the presentation of the Groupama-FDJ teams for the 2022 season, he was surrounded by Thibaut Pinot, Stefan Küng, Arnaud Démare, David Gaudu and Valentin Madouas. People he “has watched” since he was “a child”, but he too was entitled to a nice number of questions.
“People may be a bit too enthusiastic”
So the enthusiasm does exist, even if he tries to qualify it. “Overall, I think that there is a big media coverage around me that is not necessarily justified”, he believes. “I think that some are going a little too fast, and sometimes it can be surprising. The other day, I even came across an article whose title was ‘Is the new Pogacar French?’ Out of curiosity, I opened the article and saw that it was about me. Personally, I don’t realize at all that people could compare me to this kind of rider. I’m still very far from that level. So, either I really don’t realize it, or people may be a bit too enthusiastic. In any case, I quite detach myself from it. I don’t take too much to heart what can be said about me. I live my little life as I see fit. If it works, it means I would have done the right thing. If that doesn’t work, too bad. I am also quite realistic, I know that cycling is an extremely tough sport, that not everyone is made for it and that I may never win a race within the pros. But if I tried everything to get there, then it does not matter. I don’t put that much pressure on myself about my future.” This being said, his growing popularity over the past year has had at least one positive impact: saving time in terms of learning how to interact with the media. “I consider it a chance to already have this coverage, and not to discover it at 23 years old when I will potentially have results”, he explains. “I’m already a bit used to it, but I’m still learning how to handle it better.”
External pressure has therefore little influence on him. As an example, he lined up at the start of the U23 cyclocross French championship on January 8th with a real peace of mind, despite all the eyes staring at him. “I really was there to have fun, I didn’t think about it,” he insists. Eventually, he went on to grab a blue-white-red jersey, another one. “I had not set myself a goal in terms of result,” he continues. “Given the feelings I had and how the circuit looked, I was quite confident that I could have a good race, without thinking about the title. But winning like that was great, I was so happy. There were people along the circuit to push me. The team had deployed the big means, we had everything we needed from a material and logistical point of view, so I obviously wanted to return the favor by getting the jersey”. Under the eyes of general manager Marc Madiot, Romain Grégoire therefore opened the Conti’s counter for 2022, but also his own one. He would now like to keep it turning on the road, although being just in his first year as a U23. “I like to win, so obviously I would like to raise my arms,” he adds. “If I’m in a position to do so, I will, but I also know that I’m coming to a professional team where I will sometimes get a different role. It’s another category, and I think the roles will be defined by our performances on the bike. I have everything to prove, and I think my teammates will not hesitate to beat me as well. It just seems fair. The hierarchy will be established on the first races, and we will see what happens. I am also quite ready to take on the role of a domestique, and I am even looking forward to discovering it”.
Exploring his rider profile
In many respects, the 2022 season will therefore be a real challenge for the rider from Franche-Comté, who has yet to find his precise path. “I think that like everyone else, I will discover myself during the U23 years, especially in stage races with long climbs, which we had little opportunity to do in the juniors category”, he points out. “I’ll see if it’s something that can suit me, or not. For now, I am more comfortable on shorter climbs, from three to twenty minutes, but that’s also because I have never trained intensively in the mountains”. As things stand, he would therefore fit more into a “puncher-climber” type-of box. His perspectives are therefore not surprising. “My goals will be more in races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège or the Tour of Lombardy”, he adds. “I really like this kind of terrain. On the other hand, I think my build won’t allow me to be competitive in the Flemish Classics among the pros. Though I would love to do the Tour of Flanders at least once in my career. Finally, the championships are races that particularly appeal to me. For two years, it’s been going pretty well… Having a jersey as a reward, for me, it really means something, and it pushes me to give even more to get it. Then, I manage to handle the pressure rather well in these races, so good for me!”