Both Quentin Pacher and Groupama-FDJ expected a lot from their collaboration starting the 2022 season. At the end of the first year, it can be said that both parties did benefit from it. The 30-year-old Frenchman took a new dimension while the team added a valuable asset to its game. In the middle of the off-season, the rider from Libourne sat down to talk in length about the past year, his evolution, and his future expectations.
How’s your off-season going, Quentin?
This is not the most difficult part of the season (smiles). I resumed training a week ago. This was the first time I took such a long break, but the team convinced me that I had to rest well this winter. It was nice to be able to travel and switch off from cycling a bit. I didn’t spend five weeks on my couch, but I could do whatever I wanted. Everything is so timed and planned during the rest of the year, so it’s also nice to have a period when you have more freedom. I also managed to completely switch off mentally this year, which I was not necessarily able to do in the past. It also helps to be completely committed when you come back, and to feel regenerated.
“To be satisfied, that’s not bad!”
Let’s look back at your first season with the team. How do you assess it, quite simply?
I am satisfied with it. For many reasons, it was a new step in my progression among the professionals. It was my first season in a WorldTour team, with the program that goes with it and the roster that goes with it. I wanted to fit in well with the team and be a rider you could rely on and trust. From this point of view, I think I met the expectations. I also wanted to discover certain races and come back to others. Eventually, I had quite a dense program, I raced a lot, and for a long time: from the Grand Prix La Marseillaise to Il Lombardia. It’s been a solid season. I had results throughout the year and the team wanted me because they knew my consistency, that’s what interested them. Originally, I was supposed to be part of the group of climbers, with Thibaut and David, but on top of that, I had a lot of opportunities to show myself and achieve results. It’s not something I particularly expected, but I was able to seize these opportunities.
Are you satisfied or very satisfied?
Let’s say that the expectations I had from myself evolved during the season. From the moment I noticed that I was able to be in the mix in the WorldTour and to get close to victory, I started to view things differently. I can be satisfied because my physical condition and my level are what they are, and I know now what I can do with it, but I cannot be very satisfied because I haven’t won yet. There were times when I thought I could do it, but I now have to! This is the small step that I miss to be very satisfied. That being said, to be satisfied, that’s not bad!
“It took me into a virtuous circle”
You started the 2022 season in a very solid way. It was something you wanted?
I’ve always been someone who wanted to perform from the start of the season. In the past, I was also in teams where the start of the season was very important, especially to run for invitations. I always used to do serious winters and to be ready from the very first race. I have always kept that dynamic. Then, when you join a new team, the first impression you give is of course important. That being said, the winter was more complicated than expected. I had to get used to a change of equipment, position, environment. I was sick a first time, then I got the Covid after Bessèges… Everything did not really come together, but in the end, it still went well. I was focused from the start of the year. It was a different program than the one I had in the past. Previously, I was very busy from February until Paris-Nice, and then it was a bit lighter. This time, Paris-Nice was more of a launching pad for what was to follow, with Milano-Sanremo, the Tour of Catalonia and the Ardennes Classics. It was a very different approach.
Talking about Milano-Sanremo and Catalonia, was this sequence a turning point?
I was really happy regarding Milano-Sanremo. I like races that have a history, a past, and Milano-Sanremo is one of the most beautiful and oldest events on the calendar. Although being a rookie, thanks to the adrenaline, I was able to be in the mix and help Arnaud in the final. I was very happy with that. Then, two days later, I did not expect to achieve such a result on the first stage of the Tour of Catalonia (3rd). It took me into a virtuous circle, and I then told myself that I was capable of being up there at a high level. It kind of clicked, yes.
You then made it into the top-20 on the three “Ardennes” Classics. Is it meaningful to you?
I think it is. I was not among the team leaders, but I was among the riders supposed to be there in the final. When you’re in the top-20 three times, it means you were in the mix every time. These were also races I had not raced in the previous two years, and I was missing some bearings. On the Flèche in particular, I made my effort very early on the Mur de Huy. I repositioned myself and came into the first positions with 200-300 meters to go. I then cracked a little because I did not manage my effort well. I told myself that with a little more experience, I could have come away with a top-10. It was good to come back to those races. I was in the mix, I was consistent, although I did not achieve the great result that I would like to get. Let’s say we’ll do it another time. Anyway, this sequence with Paris-Nice, Sanremo, Catalonia and the Ardennes Classics proved to be a significant proof of my progress and of the fact that I was able to perform at this level. This first part of the season also allowed me to settle into the squad and become a safe bet in the team.
“La Vuelta was quite a roller coaster”
However, you did not make it into the Tour de France’s selection.
I was of course disappointed, but I am a high-level athlete, and it is part of an athlete’s life to deal with this kind of situation. I am also pragmatic. From the moment I am not selected, I move towards other goals. There were also interesting things ahead with the Tour of Poland, the Vuelta and the Italian races. I obviously was affected, since I had done all the preparation, all the altitude camps with the rest of the group, and I was progressing on the Tour de Suisse. However, from the moment the selection is done and the choices are made, we must move forward. I was disappointed, but I did not feel down. In hindsight, that was maybe a blessing in disguise. I had a very busy start to the season, with a lot of race days, stage races. Being free in July allowed me to rest, refuel the tank and get some freshness back for the end of the season. Eventually, this freshness proved useful. I performed well on efforts and stages that suited me. I was consistent, and maybe even closer to victory than at the start of the year.
After a solid Tour of Poland, you experienced almost everything on the Vuelta until your abandon following a crash on stage 18. What do you make of it?
It was quite a roller coaster! In the first uphill finish (5th), I did what I already managed to do in the same kind of finish on the Tour of Poland, with a lactic, punchy effort. After that, we had two great days with Rudy’s red jersey. Then, I got sick after the first rest day and experienced two very difficult stages, especially during the time trial. It was really hard mentally. That day, I told myself: “if you get to fight for a stage win at one point, remember that painful day when you went to the depths of your means just to be able to finish the time trial”. Fortunately, a sequence of stages allowed me to recover and get my health back afterwards. A few days later, I took second. There is no bitterness about it. I really feel like I gave my best that day. I re-watched the final once, and I’m so far with one kilometre remaining that people don’t even think of me for the win. I found the strengths to come back in the last meters, but unfortunately too late. At that moment, I told myself that it could be my day and that I had missed out on a real big win. But at the end of the day, it rather makes me optimistic for the future and it opens new perspectives, higher ambitions. I managed to be consistent at a high level, and that’s a very good thing. This Vuelta was anyway full of emotions.
“From the moment you’ve surprised yourself once…”
Did you surprise yourself this year? Or do you feel you surprised others?
If someone wants to sign you, it means that the people in charge have confidence and are hopeful about your progression. That’s for sure. I don’t think I’ve been underestimated, but it was definitely a little higher than I imagined. Mentally, I still feel like a neo-pro. Every time I start a season, I feel like I have the same motivation, the same determination and that I’m still able to improve. With the team’s environment, the analysis and the professionalism there, I still expected to be at a higher level than in the past. I was obviously a little surprised, but I was hoping to move up that notch. I also know how much work there is behind, everything I did to get there. The surprise probably came from the fact that I was now able to be in the mix with the best. On the Tour of Catalonia, I definitely surprised myself. But from the moment you’ve surprised yourself once… The second time around, you start thinking: “this is my level, this is where I should be”. From there, you review the level of your ambitions. What used to be a performance is now kind of the norm. Getting closer to the top-5 and the podium in the WorldTour, even to victory, came progressively. If the second place in the Vuelta had arrived at the start of the year, it would have been a big surprise. When it comes progressively, you get used to it more. For me, the surprise reduced over the year because I reviewed my ambitions.
When did you realize that you had passed another milestone?
You become aware of it progressively, along the way. There was obviously this first block of racing, with the Tour of Catalonia where I got third, fifth and where I broke away on the last day with Kruijswijk to try to win the stage. Then, there was fifth place in Poland after a long time without racing. I realized that I was straight away in the mix, in a hill-top finish, with guys like Carapaz or Higuita. I thought: “Here we go again!”. But then, it becomes the minimum of your ambitions.
How do you explain your progression? A harder competition to make it to the Tour?
No. I did the Tour for the first time in 2020, then I did it again in 2021, and then it took a weight off my mind. It was something that motivated me since I was a kid, and I was afraid to go through my career without taking part in it. Doing it was a relief, first of all. Then, when I joined the team, I also discovered a whole new program. There are a bunch of WorldTour races that I had never done and that I wanted to participate in. In fact, during the season, I didn’t think too much about the Tour before entering the final preparation. I was really focused on what was coming next. Because when I went to Milano-Sanremo, it was a discovery. When I went on the Tour of Catalonia, it was a discovery. When I went to the Ardennes Classics, it was the first time in three years. So to say that the Tour was not an obsession. I think my progress is due to a later physical maturity, but also to gaining confidence over the years. I am more serene about my preparation, about my qualities once I get in the race. There is obviously the whole environment regarding the performance in the team, whether in terms of equipment, nutrition, physical preparation, training, camps planning etc… Thanks to this professionalism and this fluidness, there is no loss of time or energy, and these little added extras allow us to continue to progress.
“It’s up to you to be ready the day you’re given your chance”
For how long can you still improve?
It’s hard to say, but I’m hoping for a few more years! Mentally, I have the same ambition to continue to progress, and to get closer to what I’m missing: victories. In addition to this, everything that was accumulated, done, and approved last year must serve as a basis for my future progress. I know that the team has confidence in me, that they believe in me, and I hope that we will get there together.
Do you see similarities between Rudy Molard’s path and yours?
Actually, when the team first contacted me in 2021, that’s kind of how they presented the project to me. They told me they thought I could have a progression like the one Rudy had when he arrived in the team. So, it’s completely legitimate. Without doing strict comparisons in terms of results or performances, theoretically, we indeed can assimilate both trajectories. Besides, being compared to Rudy doesn’t bother me at all!
Do you feel your role has evolved over the year?
Maybe yes. Eventually, I had a lot of opportunities. But when you arrive in a team, that you are given this role and that you accept it, then it is up to you to be ready the day you’re given your chance. It is on these days, if you perform and if you’re good, that your status can evolve and lead you to have more opportunities. That’s how I see it. You have to know how to seize these days to show that you can be counted on. As the year progressed, I also made more use of qualities that I had perhaps put aside a little: my punch, my sprint, hills efforts, short, lactic ones. On the Vuelta, they counted on me, and I had all the freedom I needed to do my thing. I think the team now expects me to take the last step and win races.
“There is a particular vibe that emerges from this team”
Would you say that you had more responsibilities than you imagined?
The word “responsibility” implies that you cannot fail, it sounds like you’re a “leader”. However, I rather have the feeling that I was given freedom rather than given responsibilities. I’m a bit picky with words, but there are leaders in the team like Arnaud, David, Thibaut, or Stefan who have real responsibilities. On the Tour of Poland, it is true that I was protected for the hard stages, but I always found it easier to be the only climber in a group of sprinters, because you do not prevent anyone from achieving a result, or from doing his own race (smiles). Your qualities stand out naturally. On the other hand, when you are in a group with riders who have the same qualities as you, that is when you take responsibility.
After your abandon in the Vuelta, Philippe Mauduit said: “He really gave momentum to this team for three weeks, and even when he was sick, he was an important member for the group”. Have you already taken a central position within the team?
It’s hard for me to talk about it, but what I can say is that I feel very comfortable here. It’s always the same thing when you join a team: you have to get to know riders that you have known mainly as opponents. I arrived a bit on tiptoe, I just wanted to get to know my teammates and the staff. At first, it’s a bit impressive when you see that there are 80 people on the call for the Calp camp. It seemed huge to me. I thought it was going to be hard to remember everyone’s name, and everyone’s job. Then, you find yourself in small groups, and it is in these conditions that you manage to fit in, to know the people you work with. I quickly felt comfortable and felt welcomed by others. I am just me. I haven’t changed over the year. It’s the way I like to communicate and be with my teammates. All this also goes through the sporting side of things. People have to know they can count on you on the bike, and that’s how you create bonds. I also think that there is a nice harmony in the team overall. Even if it is a big team, a WorldTour one, there is a particular vibe that emerges from it. You can feel a real unity, and personally, I enjoy going to the races.
“I’m still motivated like a neo-pro”
Were you surprised in some ways?
When you join a big team coming from a Pro Continental squad, there are always those who tell you: “You will have fewer opportunities, you will be limited, you will have to work for so-and-so”. But if I felt good in the team, that’s also because I enjoy working for others. We sometimes say that cycling is an individual sport that is raced as a team. I don’t see it as an individual sport, I only see it as a team sport. When you do things in a group, with everyone working together, the satisfaction that comes when it works out is always increased tenfold. I’ve always felt that way. So, when you work for the team, for your leaders, it also helps with fitting in and allows a good relationship off the bike. There is another example: Thibaut. He is the rider we all know. So when you don’t know him personally, you are necessarily impressed. But in the race, you’re facing a rider who is very honest with his teammates and capable of saying when he doesn’t feel good so as not to hold back the others. It’s very respectable and humble from him, and it definitely helps the integration of riders like me.
Is there anything you discovered this year?
Actually, as I joined the WorldTour, I had the feeling of starting a new career. It’s quite strange. I’m still motivated like a neo-pro, I feel like I still have a lot of things to do, a lot of races to discover, with a lot of opportunities and perspectives. I don’t feel like l have seen it all. I think I gained confidence. I got confirmations, I’m confident about my level, about what I can accomplish, and that gives me extra motivation for the coming season. I hope that this first season was a springboard. I approach the next one with the same spirit as this one but wishing to get the last thing I miss: winning. I don’t think about it every morning when I get up, but I now know that I can do it, so it has to come. Of course, I don’t forget everything else, especially the consistency that the team expects from me, or the Tour de France.