At just 21, Théo Nonnez is about to enter his third season with the Groupama-FDJ continental team. After two eventful years, the former French junior champion is committed to confirm the potential he has been showing from his younger years. He agreed to tell us more about himself to get to know him better.
Cycling is one of the sports whose practice and passion come very often from a family tradition. Based on this observation, Théo Nonnez had every chance of ending up on a bike. However, he does not mind saying that he initially completely ignored the discipline that his father Eric practised for about twenty-five years. “It didn’t interest me at all,” he says today. “My dad was a good amateur rider and would watch most of the races on TV. But personally, I didn’t like it. I surely went with him on races growing up, but I hardly remember it.” At five years old, he rather chose football, like many young boys of his generation. This remained his main sporting activity for eight years while cycling only occurred as an occasional practice. “My father is very fond of mechanics and he used to assemble a Bianchi bike for me. Three or four times a year, we would ride an hour and a half around the Longchamp racecourse in Paris,” he explains. “There was not more to it than that”. Around 13, then playing for the Entente Sannois Saint-Gratien – a decent club from the Paris region, his love for the game declined. “My favourite thing was going to play with my friends as a child. When it got more competitive, I lost the taste for it, and I didn’t have the qualities to make a career anyway.”
From the Nutella jar to the red, white, and blue jersey
Looking for a new sporting field, Théo Nonnez eventually, and inevitably, comes back to cycling. During an association exhibition, the Parisis Athlétic Club 95 suggested to him giving it a try. It proved to be successful. “I immediately found in cycling what I was missing in football,” he explains. “There was a family atmosphere which I immediately liked very much. I got there in winter, with my first trainings being cyclocross. I was really lame in terms of handling the bike, but I was having a lot of fun”. He eventually started his cycling course as a U17, which came with a weekly training he had to get used to. “I remember coming back from my first rides, lying on the couch with a Nutella jar and a tablespoon”, he laughs. “In terms of energy expenditure, it had nothing to do with football.” From his first months of practice, some notice a real potential, which he still needed to develop. “I had to catch up a bit at first, but I felt over the weekends that I ended up improving pretty quickly,” he recalls. “So much so that at the end of my first U17 year, I would sometimes fight for victory, whereas I was dropped in the first laps a few months before”. He got a confirmation the following season, as he not only could fight for victory, but also netted some on the regional scene.
“I would enjoy the sport a lot more than when I was suffering in the first year”, he confesses. He also took part in the Trophée Madiot, a benchmark competition in this category, but did not particularly stand out. “I only competed in 2-3 rounds,” he says. “It required a lot of travel and I didn’t feel I had the level to perform there”. However, he built confidence on the national scene during the French Cup at the end of the season. “I went for and got the KOM jersey. I started to think that, although I was not among the very best, I could still be there.” However, the real click did not come until the following year, in his first months as junior. Despite a decent start to the season, he claimed the French champion title to everyone’s surprise. “I made a big step between my last year U17 and my first year U19, and I was starting to have a real impact in the races,” he continues. “I was often in the background, but I was there, in the shadow of the best. I knew that potentially, in a certain race, with the right circumstances, I could do something big. But I honestly did not think it would happen in the French championship”. Yet, on August 20, 2016, the “small flame” that always tells him “nothing is impossible” proved him right. “That was a great lesson that day,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself. I did not have great legs, but I held on and it paid off. To this day, it is still the happiest day of my career, and of my life. I remember embracing my father, who was in tears. I still get chills just talking about it.”
Never satisfied but always stepping up
A source of personal and family pride, this “legendary” tricolour jersey also gave him a new status and naturally opened up a range of possibilities he did not suspect until then. “That’s when I told myself that I could do something in the sport if I stayed committed,” he continues. This “professional” approach is strengthened by his desire to show what he is capable of, following his “surprise” title. “I might have paid too much attention to what was said about me and I wanted to prove that I deserved this jersey. I reached another milestone for my second year junior, I committed a lot more, I was much more serious and I started the season highly motivated”. He first suffered a few setbacks, but quickly set the record straight by winning the French Cup’s first round (Boucles Cyclistes Sud-Avesnois) before moving on with 12th on the Course de la Paix, two stage podiums and a second place overall in the Nations Cup event’s Tour des Pays de Vaud, or also 7th in the Grand Prix Rüebliland. “From the moment I won with my champion Jersey, I was freed from that burden and the rest was just a bonus,” he says. “That being said, I can’t say it was beyond my expectations, because I always expect a lot from myself and I am very often not happy. Even if I had won a stage in the Pays de Vaud, I would probably have been disappointed not having won another. That’s how I am”.
Moving on the U23 ranks, his potential was nonetheless confirmed, and then supported by the development program funded by the FDJ Foundation, through Nicolas Boisson. He then left his first club, which “made him love cycling”, to join the well-known team of Nogent-sur-Oise, and quickly showed himself despite a tougher, more experienced competition. He still got “his ass kicked a few times” but he kept on progressing and often was a protagonist in the races he took part in. All that with a clear idea in the back of his head. “I had the opportunity to do the training camp in Calpe at the start of 2018 season with the Groupama-FDJ team,” he recalls. “I was starting to be in the team’s environment, but the WorldTour seemed so far away still, I was only debuting with the amateurs. I still had a lot to prove but I remember that we had been told about a continental team project for 2019. Clément [Davy], Simon [Guglielmi] and Alexys [Brunel] were there, and we looked at each other straight in the eyes, realizing what a great opportunity it could be. For me, everything seemed to fit together perfectly. I got to the right place at the right time.” These talks about moving up to the next level got more concrete along the year as the young man proved to be one of the best U23 rookies, taking a solid sixth place in the French championship and winning his first “National Elite” race (Blangy-sur-Bresle).
A contrasted first year with the “Conti”
The pre-traced path towards professionalism through the newly established “Conti” got real soon after he turned 19. “It’s always something special to sign a pro contract, but it was more a relief than a surprise as I felt I had the level to be there,” he explained. “However, when I signed the contract and realized it was done, I got a little hit in the back of my head. Until then, I had let myself be carried along. I was just riding the wave. Suddenly, it was a serious matter. Deep down I obviously wanted to make a career, but I actually never really thought about it. It was a special feeling and I realized that I was kind of living my dream.” The young man therefore got into the first Groupama-FDJ continental team’s roster. Although he was “over the moon” being in this organization, he claims he was not disoriented since the FDJ Foundation prepared him for the Conti, the same way the latter should prepare for the WorldTeam. “I really had a smooth evolution with this course, and I wanted to continue to take my time and take the steps one after the other.” Yet, things quickly followed for Théo Nonnez, who became the first winner of the Conti’s history in their debuts at the Boucles de l’Essor. “Marc Madiot and one representative from Groupama were on site,” he recalls. “I wanted to surpass myself. We rode very well as a team and I’m the one who raised his arms at the end. I was over the moon, but very focused and motivated for what would happen next”.
What happened next was just as good, with a fourth place in Liège-Bastogne-Liège “attesting [his] puncher qualities”, but also a “more surprising” fifth place overall in the mountainous Ronde de l’Isard. “I discovered qualities that I wouldn’t necessarily have suspected,” he says. “This concluded a fairly successful first half of the season, but that’s paradoxically when the troubles started”. The same evening, after suffering some terrible weather conditions in the Pyrenees, the young man got a severe gastroenteritis, which left him in bed for a week. His preparation for the second part of the season was cut short and he first unusually suffered on the Baby Giro: “I hung on because I don’t like to give up. Looking back, I think I should have, but it was such a great race that I did not want to leave it like that.” The backlash was only harsher a month later on another prestigious U23 event, the Giro della Valle d’Aosta. “These races are so demanding that it is almost impossible to play a role if you’re not 100%,” he says. “It was a real torture and I was out of time limit when my teammate Kevin Inkelaar took the win. I was at my wit’s end”. The fact he fought for the win (7th) at the Grand Prix of Nogent-sur-Oise was only a small consolation in this second part of the season ruined by an “accumulation of several factors”.
“I wanted to believe that I could be a climber”
Eager to set the record straight from the start of the 2020 season, he got to his first races “super motivated”. He first got caught in the echelons at Ster van Zwolle, but he entered the breakaway a few days later on Le Samyn. “Physically, I gained confidence and I felt I was building up nicely towards my goals, the Classics.” However, the pandemic stopped him in his tracks. “We can certainly say that the Covid is a convenient scapegoat and can be the excuse for many issues, but that personally did not help me since I was trying to reaffirm myself,” he said. The return to racing did not prove successful either for Théo Nonnez, who partly takes the blame for it. “With the new program, I thought I had to push my little climbing qualities, but I didn’t necessarily do it well and I suffered from deficiencies,” he explains. “I was so eager to reach another milestone that I did too much and it wasn’t the right solution. We did what we could to reverse the trend, but it was a little too late.” There were certainly some punctual satisfactions, such as his participation in Arnaud Démare’s title, or his solid performances in the European Championship and the Tour du Doubs, but he suffered another “little blow” on the Ronde de l’Isard, which he symbolically hoped to be a turning point.
His last opportunities of the season eventually evaporated following a “silly” crash after a long training under the rain, which proved more serious than expected. “I figured I was going to rest for two days and that it was going ok, but eventually, I couldn’t walk for three weeks.” This put the end to a season and a half of struggles. “I try to stay positive,” he continues. “I realize how lucky I am to be part of this structure, this team, this family. I had some difficult times, but they will certainly serve me in the future. Since mid-2019, I have probably lived the hardest period of my career, but also of my life in general while I paradoxically was a pro. It forged my character and I am already not the same mentally speaking”. Sportingly, the 21-year-old now also knows what he wants. “I’ve always tried to find myself, to be honest,” he says. “I wanted to believe that I could be a climber, but I realize that I have to lean towards what I love to do and where I feel the strongest, namely in the “warriors”, punchers races, such as the Classics. I think I need to be wrong in order to be right. I need to make mistakes in order to move forward and understand, and I am learning about myself day by day. This is also the Conti’s point”.
His mates as an inspiration
In 2021, he will then compete his third season with the team, of which he will be the most experienced rider, but he doesn’t lose sight of his ultimate ambition. “If I had an example so far in professional cycling, it would be Simon Guglielmi,” he says. “It may sound strange because he is not yet a great champion, but he is a very good rider, and also a very good friend. With Kevin and Alexys, they have trajectories that inspire me, and whom I would like to get closer to. They have made this step, they fit very well into the WorldTeam, both humanly and sportingly, and they are really inspiring to me”. Hoping to follow in their footsteps, he intends to focus his work on his basic qualities but especially wishes to regain an attribute that was his strength until recently. “Some glitches have hampered my consistency for a year and a half. Now, I would like to get it back to show that I can be counted on every day, all the time”. Psychologically and physically settled, Théo Nonnez also wanted to reconnect with studies, through a communication degree, in order to find a certain life balance. “I feel that I have never been more fulfilled in cycling than when I had something next to it,” he describes. “While it’s a pleasure to wake up every morning to do something you love, perhaps I needed another goal. I had some tough times, I questioned myself a lot, and I realized that having something else could have helped me to move forward faster. I’m getting back to studies for my personal development, and therefore for my performance. I am also fortunate that my employer takes care of this training. It’s a great opportunity, a project that really thrives me and I want to invest myself properly into it”.