Ten days after Mickaël Delage, who actually shared his company for his very last race, William Bonnet also said good-bye to professional cycling earlier this month, in Milan-Turin. At 39, one of the peloton’s most loyal domestique closed a long history made of seventeen seasons, including the last eleven with Groupama-FDJ. With a clear head, the Frenchman looked back on his career, its various highlights, and on his last moments as a pro rider.
William, your mate Mickaël Delage recently told us that he felt relieved after his retirement. And you, what do you feel?
Not much, to be honest (smiles). I just think I’ve come to the end of my professional cycling story, and I don’t have regrets about it. For sure, the last few weeks have been difficult physically speaking. I felt that my body wasn’t reacting the same way as before. Psychologically, it was not easy either, because I still wanted to be at the required level for the team. Somehow I understand when Mika talks about relief, because retirement puts an end to this self-pressure to do well in order to meet the team’s expectations. That being said, I don’t feel anything special: no lack, no void. I’m coping with it very well. For me, that was just a logical consequence. I’ve seen it all, as I was telling Marc just recently. I have even already started to return my bikes. I slowly but surely move on. A new life begins. I look more to the future than to the past.
“I don’t regret having done this year, and I hope neither do the team”
How has your decision matured in recent months?
For several seasons already, I was only signing one-year contracts with the team. Every winter, it was clear between us that it would all be decided based on how the season would unfold, how I would feel physically, and whether I would feel that I could still bring something to the team. At the start of this season, I again had a few physical issues and realized that the body was not reacting as I wanted in competition. On the UAE Tour, I was still fresh, fully motivated and everything was going well. However, going to races like the Tour of Catalonia later on, I started to feel that the bunch’s average level, which seemed to increase every year, was getting too high for me. For sure, my age also took its toll… In Catalonia, I really struggled and even wondered what I was still doing here. It became quite hard mentally. The decision gradually matured, and at the Dauphiné, I announced it to the team. It had to be said clearly.
Was it painful to realize that the end was close?
As an experienced pro rider, you often hear: “This year might be too much”. I don’t understand it, because you can’t guess it beforehand. On the opposite, my adventure ends now and I have no regrets. If you stop while you still believe that you can contribute, it’s harder to get over it in my opinion. I have no regrets about doing this year. At the end of last year, I still felt capable of bringing something to the team. Now, it’s over. I gave everything I could. I’m 39, things did not go as well as I hoped this year but that’s how it is. I don’t regret it, and I hope neither does the team.
Why did you choose Milano-Torino as your retirement race?
In recent seasons, I raced a lot with Thibaut. This year though, almost not at all. His start to the season was very difficult as everyone knows, and we only teamed up in the Tour du Poitou-Charentes. Unfortunately, it only lasted a day for me because I had to leave for extra sporting reasons. Taking part in Milano-Torino to end my career was therefore a wish of mine. I wanted to be with this group, as we shared a lot of things together, even if everyone could not be there obviously. We have been through a lot emotionally speaking, be it good times, harder ones, on and off the bike. Things like these leave a mark on you. I also like the other riders on the team (smiles), but we just have more connections and bounds with some. That’s why I really wanted to end my career with Thibaut in particular.
“I wasn’t just there to do my last race with Thibaut”
Could you talk us through this last day?
At the briefing, our sports directors Sébastien Joly and Jussi Veikkanen had a few words for me. The team also had a kind touch for me during the teams’ presentation (a banner to his name, note) and that really moved me. My parents were there as well, and I didn’t know they were coming. I’m more of a shade-loving person, in everyday life or on the bike. I don’t like being put in the spotlight, but all the attention was heart-warming and made me very happy. Then, there was the last start and I got to talk with a few riders in the peloton.
In these circumstances, is it difficult to do your job properly race-wise while enjoying your last moments?
Quite honestly, it was more difficult in terms of training to motivate yourself to put in the work and try to be ready, especially since it was not such a lively period. However, once in the race, motivation returns straight away. I wasn’t just there to do my last race with Thibaut. I wanted to do my job and live up to what Thibaut or David could expect from me. I tried to do my best. It wasn’t until the end, when we got to Torino with the two times up the climb, that I took it easier. I had more thoughts on the end of my career as I watched the last few kilometers go by, before crossing that last finish line.
We understand that it was not an option for you not to finish.
It was the last one… Even though I was physically tired, I wanted to cross the line. It’s mostly symbolic; because I just finished as best I could and I took my time. I saw my parents by the side of the road, I said a few words to people who congratulated and encouraged me. I took the time to thank them. I made it within the time limit for just a minute, but it was definitely one of the first times I didn’t pay attention to it (laughs).
Did you celebrate that evening?
We just had a few drinks to celebrate this moment. Marc [Madiot] joined us on video to give a little speech. I also took the floor to tell them that this day with them was very important to me and to thank them for all these moments spent together.
“I managed to reinvent myself […] I’m rather proud of it”
When you left the next morning, did you feel the blues?
Not really, especially since I left the hotel around five in the morning and I hadn’t gotten much sleep. I was on my own to take my flight. I was just looking forward to getting home and being back to my family. I took the opportunity to read the messages I had received, but I did not feel any sadness or nostalgia. It was a different comeback from the others, for sure, because it was the last one, but I mostly had in mind to be on time so as not to miss my plane (smiles). I didn’t feel the need to look back on my career. I will maybe have a backlash later, but right now there is already so much to do with my children, my wife. Life is resuming, I must move forward. I have never looked back on the past. When I was a rider, I tried to be good on the day, without thinking about the next or the previous ones. I’m trying to live in the moment, and that’s already enough for me.
If I still ask you to look back, what are you the most satisfied with in your career?
This is something quite general, which Marc repeats to me from time to time: I have known how to reinvent myself, change roles and I have competed in almost all the races that exist, including races that did not suit me at first glance. After my crash in 2015, I had to move on and was able to compete in races that I never thought I would participate in before. I’m rather proud of it, although some might say it’s not much. I have competed in all the Grand Tours, all the Monuments. I went from a Flemish races’ rider to a domestique in the Ardennes or in really mountainous races. When I would see the program lying ahead at the start of the year, I would often think that the challenge was going to be hard, but I liked being able to pay back the trust from the team, Thibaut and other leaders. That was the most important thing to me, actually. Trust is a word that I like and a value that is close to my heart. When I felt trust, it motivated me to give even more.
How was your crash a turning point in your career?
First of all, I was lucky to get out of it… After my rehab, it was clearly established with the surgeons that I had to be careful and that I avoid crashes, because I might not have a second chance. So I headed towards climber races, where the risk and stress are slightly lower, even though they’re still here. Anyway, that called the end of the Flandrian Classics, the cobblestones, jolts, and ultra-nervous races where there is a lot of fighting for position. Naturally, we moved on to another program with the team, more Thibaut-oriented. That’s how I got to experience a bunch of other races. It was a new challenge for me, but I had a lot of fun and it is also what allowed me to regain motivation, to have new goals and to be able to continue for longer.
“Thibaut is someone who leaves his mark on you”
You also became what we usually called “a road captain”…
With the years passing by, people automatically give you this status. I don’t know if I was really a road captain, or rather someone who could be relied on. When I started, I was more of a sprinter, working for a lead-out train. I’ve always liked this domestique role of riders working selflessly. It’s something I have always respected. Even as a kid, that inspired me. Obviously, I also liked being able to win. However, when you’re on a team and some riders have better potential than you, have more ability to win, you have to be clear-headed enough and find your place in order to be useful. When Arnaud got on the team, his qualities were obvious and it was normal to support him. It makes sense, and I even think that it is the way a lot of riders should approach it. When you reach the pro level, you obviously want to win, to achieve many things, to be in the spotlight, but there comes a time when you also need to realize that someone is better than you and that you have to find your position. Once you find it, you go all out and try to give everything you have. My different teams have always been grateful from this point of view.
You are not sure if you were a road captain. But what is a road captain according to you?
It’s hard to say. For some, he’s the one who acts on the strategy during the race. If that is so, I might not have been really helpful. Once the first climb was done, I was no longer with Thibaut. For me, he’s more someone who brings serenity, who can interact with everyone, staff and riders, and who can collect everyone’s thoughts and opinions. I would actually identify myself more as a big brother than a road captain. My goal was for everyone to feel good, which is not far from my role on the bike. My goal also was for my leaders to be in the best conditions in order to perform in the best possible way in the races’ finals.
Among these leaders, there is obviously Thibaut. How come you too got along so well?
Sometimes, things cannot be explained. Thibaut is a frank, natural person, who also gives a lot in return. We obviously experienced intense emotions together on the bike, but we also shared training camps, which will remain for life and that no one saw. I mostly remember these slices of life we had together. Thibaut knows how much I appreciate him, and I have always enjoyed helping him the best I could and sacrificing myself for him. What pushes you to go beyond your limits and inspires you to give more is not just the rider. It’s the man. He knows how to make people gather around him. It’s Thibaut; he’s someone who leaves his mark on you, who leaves his mark on everyone.
“After all, I don’t regret my crash”
Instinctively, what are the positive moments of these seventeen years that come to your mind?
Going chronologically, I first really enjoyed starting with Auber 93. Stéphane Javalet made it possible for me to turn professional, he trusted me, and I cannot thank him enough. Then, there is my first Tour de France with Crédit Agricole. I remember the noise of the crowds in London, the noise of the crowd entering the Champs Elysées. Things like that stand the test of time. The first Tour victories alongside Thor Hushovd will also remain forever. I will naturally remember my victory in Paris-Nice, my tenth place on the Tour of Flanders. In seventeen years, there are obviously many things. We knew Arnaud was capable of anything, but his victory in Milano-San Remo was still a huge surprise for everyone, and a great moment. Sometimes, we still talk with some about the 2014 Tour de France, when Thibaut finishes third. I also remember the Giro with Thibaut, a lot will stick in my memory. But the apotheosis was his victory on the Tour of Lombardy. It was like it was written. He was in great shape, everyone knew what to do, Jérémy Roy was doing his last race with the team. It was a special moment and a truly unforgettable day.
Paradoxically, for a large audience, two of the main pictures relating to you are not particularly cheerful…
I could go without it (laughs). The crash is just fate… Of course, I wish it hadn’t happened, but it was somehow a turning point in my career. It allowed me to see something else. After all, I don’t regret it. I got to know and experience lots of things after that. Every now and then my body reminds me of it, as I’m scarred for life. It’s something that was negative at first and turned into something positive for the end of my career. As for the 2019 Tour, it was very hard for everyone, but most especially for Thibaut. It was disillusionment, a fading dream, but my respect for him got even stronger. For me and many others, he remains a great one.
What will you remember from your years on the team?
I had Marc on the phone just recently. This is one of the few teams that won’t leave a rider behind if he’s got a problem with a crash or an illness. From that perspective, they are different from the others. Their spirit put the human part before that of performance and the obsession for victory. I had physical issues at times, but the team was always there and always trusted me. Of course, that trust has to be earned. As far as I’m concerned, I tried to give everything I could to repay that trust. I will be grateful to the team for that all my life, because trust has never failed between us.
“They are not only great riders, they are also great people”
What do you think made you last so long at the pro level?
In the role I had, if you don’t have leaders, real leaders, there comes a point when you question your reason for being here. Motivation to train is harder to get when you never have major results or goals. With guys like Thibaut, David, Arnaud and Valentin, I had leaders up to the task. And then, they’re not just great riders, they’re also great people. When I had tough times, physically or mentally, what motivated me was being able to return with them and bring them what I knew so that they could fulfil their projects. I’m “just” a domestique, I’m here to support a leader. If your leader isn’t able to fight in the final, you inevitably lose motivation. When I see young people coming, like Jake, I actually regret being so old (smiles).
Have you already thought about the next step?
Right now I need to rest a bit. I don’t feel the need to rush. I am at peace with myself. I’m going to take the time to think about the opportunities, but my family needs me, and we also have plans together.
The most important question to conclude: when will you get back on the bike again?
To be honest with you, I’m not completely done with it! I went on a ride with a friend last Monday, and I’m going to do two cyclocross that are close to my heart. I suck at it, I just do it out of friendship for Sébastien Minard, and then I will do the one in tribute to Arnaud Coyot, as I’m close to his family. These will be my last two races as a professional cyclist. Then cycling will just be about going out with friends. I will no longer have in mind to train and do the required hours and intensity. It will just be for fun, to share the road with friends and to stop for a drink whenever we want.