A week ago, in Paris-Chauny, one of the historic members of the Groupama-FDJ cycling team closed a chapter of his life. After seventeen years within the pro ranks, including fifteen in the Madiot’s organization, Mickaël Delage indeed said good-bye and put an end to a long career mostly spent helping others. A few days after his official retirement, we called the 36-year-old man to take the pulse.
Mickaël, you ended your career a week ago. How does it feel to be a retired bike rider?
First of all, I did not go for a ride on Monday, and I have to say that it felt great. I really needed that break. Physically and mentally, I almost had nothing to give anymore. So actually, I’ve been feeling pretty good since then. I do things that I didn’t have the time to do before. In the end, it’s almost a relief to be done with it. I feel at peace and it’s a nice feeling.
“I didn’t feel any sadness”
Have you already noticed changes in your daily life?
This week, I was able to give a hand to some friends who were doing outdoor work. This is not the kind of thing I would have done before, because we usually need to train and they don’t recommend standing for a whole day on your feet. We worked, we laughed and it was really fun.
Have you been riding since your retirement?
I did not up until Friday, but my neighbour wrote to me on Thursday morning to ask if I wanted to go on a ride since they forecasted bright sunshine. I asked him how much he wanted to do, he told me two hours, so I said “let’s go”. It was cycling for fun, at a cool pace, so that we could talk. From now on, I will only ride when I feel like it. If it rains or if it’s really cold, I probably won’t go, but I still love cycling for sure. So when the weather will allow it, I’ll definitely go for a ride.
Can you tell us about the special day that was Sunday?
It even started on Saturday. When I left home, I told my wife, “This is it; this is the last time I am going to a race with the team”. It was strange to say, but it made me realize it even more. I got there and met the team. It was all the more nice as there were riders who I raced a lot with, like William Bonnet. I was happy to see him again, but I also knew it was the last time we saw each other in this environment. Then, on Sunday morning, I was pretty relaxed. I approached my last moments very peacefully in order to enjoy it as much as I could. A lot of guys came to see me, talk to me, congratulate me, and remind me of the time we spent together. I probably talked more than usual. In the end, I didn’t feel any sadness during that day. When the start was given, I said to myself “this is the last time I compete in a pro race”. That thought obviously crossed my mind, but it didn’t obsess me the entire race.
How was the atmosphere within the team?
Martial Gayant was our sports director on that race, and it turns out that I did my first pro race with him, back in 2005. And I did my last one with him too. The circle was complete, as they say. He gave William and myself a very nice gift and also gave us a little speech. However, it was difficult to do a lot more as we all have a precise schedule after the race. And the day before, we only saw each other very briefly.
“I do not consider this as a final farewell”
How did you feel on Sunday evening when everything indeed came to an end?
As I told my wife, I will keep in touch with all the riders I get along with anyway. I will no longer see them in races, but I will see them outside of cycling. That’s also why I don’t consider this as a final farewell and why I’m handling it well. That being said, on the trip home, I certainly felt a pang in my heart. I had an hour’s drive from the airport to my house and that’s when I thought about it the most. It was calm, I was all alone in the car, and I had time to reflect. Some episodes obviously came back to me. I think it’s inevitable after seventeen years. It’s still the end of a long story. I recalled a few memories: my best ones, but also the worst ones. In the end, I mostly realized that time was flying by. When I turned pro, the older riders all told me “enjoy it, a career goes by really fast”. I understood it all the more on Sunday. If I could give a small piece of advice to youngsters, it would be exactly the same: “make the most of it and give 100% all the time”. I was with Enzo [Paleni] in Paris-Chauny. When I got on the bus at the finish, I found him completely dead, exhausted to the point that he would not change. I told him that it was nice to see a young rider ending a race in that state, that we could see he was motivated and willing to go to his limits. I told him “keep it up and you will have a career, a long one, but above all, enjoy it”.
Have you received messages from other riders?
I’ve received quite a few yes, including from riders I’ve never teamed up with and I actually don’t know how they got my phone number. Still, it’s always nice and heart-warming. On the bike as well, a lot of riders came to see me, even those who I rarely speak with. They came to congratulate me on my career and wish me good luck in my new life. I hope I’ll leave a good image in the bunch. I did everything for it anyway.
Since when do you know that your pro career would end at the end of this season?
Since the day following my crash on the Tour of Poland last year. I was in the hospital, I got my wife on the phone and I told her, “I complete the last year of my contract and I quit”. I felt that I was starting to struggle physically speaking, but it just felt too much with the crash. I crashed in a downhill at 80 km/h and really struggled to get over it. I was injured in the meniscus, but also burnt and stitched up all over the body. It was a whole. It was that crash, the previous one, the one before… My decision was clear after the Vuelta and I announced it to the team in early November during the pre-season interviews. Therefore, I’ve known for a year that the road would end here for me. It’s not like I did not have the choice.
“More positives than negatives”
Knowing it way prior made it easier for you?
I had time to get used to it mentally; I was not caught off guard. That being said, I wasn’t very lucky either, as I had knee surgery in March and I didn’t race until the French championship. This series of health issues actually made me realize I made the right decision. I had time to prepare myself for the end of my career so as not to be disappointed when everything would indeed come to an end.
Did these injuries kind of ruin the party?
I would have liked to finish differently, that’s for sure. I would have preferred to do a full season and did not have to struggle after the surgery to come back. Besides that, the level is now so high that I took quite a moral blow when I returned. I was far from the level of my competitors, who had already raced a lot. It wasn’t easy to accept it, and from then on I realized it was going to be hard to finish on a high note. It certainly leaves me with a bitter taste to end up like this, but I didn’t really have a choice. I tried everything, but I had to deal with the current circumstances.
Looking back, how would you assess your career?
I’ve always tried to give 100% and I’ve always committed as much as I could. I gave my all. I wasn’t meant to win big races, so I moved into that teammate role and did the best I could in that regard. Overall, in my seventeen years, there are more positives than negatives and that’s what I will remember.
Did you think you would last so long at the high level when you turned pro?
I didn’t think about it, mostly because you don’t look that far ahead. When you get to the pros, you don’t try to estimate how long you will last. It’s just a dream to be there, many young guys would like to be in your place. You’re just into it and hope to stay at your best for as long as possible. Now, if I had been told in my first year pro that I would still be there seventeen years later, I don’t know if I would have believed it.
“I have bonded with people who became much more than colleagues”
What are the best moments that come to your mind looking back?
My best memory on the bike will forever be our first victory in a Classic with Philippe Gilbert, in Paris-Tours. There is also the French championship with Arnaud Démare in the Futuroscope. I had missed the championship two years before, he was second and I thought he could have won if I had been there to lead him out in the sprint. It left me with a bitter taste and we made up for it in 2014. It’s also a great memory. My win on the Roue Tourangelle was another good memory, but it is clearly not the best.
On the opposite, what are the worst memories?
The worst of them all was my crash in Hamburg in 2016. I spent seven days in the hospital in Germany and was very poorly taken care of. I suffered like never before, I was all alone, and I could get back home. I had a punctured pleura so I couldn’t get on the plane. Honestly, I really had a hard time. At one point I even thought that I was going to die. I said to my wife, “I think it’s over.” Beyond cycling, that’s actually the worst memory of my whole life. Another painful episode is when we did not make the time cut with Arnaud on the 2017 Tour de France. We were forced to leave the Tour on the Alps while, the next day, the race was resuming from home, from my own region. It was hard, personally. Also, I won’t regret the days in the rain, with 4-5 °C, especially in the races. I don’t know if people realize, but sometimes we get so frozen and paralyzed that it takes us over an hour to stop shaking on the bus. I will not regret that (smiles).
You competed fifteen of your seventeen professional seasons with the Groupama-FDJ. What does it mean for you?
That the team is like my second family. During these fifteen years, I have worked with all the sports directors, ridden with a lot of riders, and known a lot of assistants and soigneurs. Alain Bizet, for example, gave me my massage for fifteen years! So we even call each other outside of cycling. I have bonded with people who became so much more than colleagues. Over the years, we created a trusty relationship together with the team. If it hadn’t been so, the story wouldn’t have lasted so long. I also think that when you do your job properly and give yourself 100%, the team sees it and is grateful for it. I believe this longevity with them is one proof of that.
You also had a short experience abroad.
We had just won Paris-Tours with Philippe Gilbert and he asked me to go with him to Lotto. I hesitated a lot because I was young and it was kind of a risk to go abroad. It wasn’t an easy choice to make, but Phil was my friend and I had some great goals to go for with him. I gave it a go and I don’t regret that choice because I also met some nice people there. It also enabled me to see something else, even if it was short. I also had the best performance of my career, finishing second in the Clasica San Sebastian. In 2010, Fred Grappe asked me if I was interested in coming back and Philippe didn’t really know what he wanted to do next. I told him that FDJ wanted to take me back and he told me to go without hesitating.
“I want to enjoy life and my family a little”
When you returned, you turned into a lead-out man for Arnaud Démare…
I came back a year before Arnaud got in the team. I still remember him as a stagiaire. The next year I started leading him out in the sprints. The fact that Arnaud arrived also came at the right point for me because it gave me a bit of a boost. It gave me new goals. When you’re not a rider made to win, you have to find the right leader and the role that suits you the best. It gave me a new motivation. He was young and I thought we could build something nice with him, and that it was an opportunity to win a lot given his potential. We managed to win fifteen races in some years. We had a very good team with the likes of Offredo, Boucher, Fischer, Bonnet. Everyone was in his place, everyone gave his best. There were young guys, older ones, and these are still my best years on the bike.
What would you like people to remember about you?
I would just like them to remember the team player I was, that I always tried to help others as much as possible, and that I also brought joy to life, that I liked to laugh, have fun and kid around. Most of all, I hope people will remember me as a nice person.
Do you already have plans for the future?
For now, I just need to take a breath. I will take 5-6 months to disconnect properly and then I will take stock. I will see if I feel the need to stay in the world of cycling or not. I haven’t planned too much just yet. I want to take this break first, and enjoy life and my family a little over the next few months. Now I have time to bring and pick up the kids at school, which I didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to do before. I want to enjoy these moments from now on.