with Joseph Berlin-Sémon

“The Juniors program keeps on developing”

La Conti

The Groupama-FDJ’s strategy regarding young riders’ development continues to evolve. After the launch of the “Conti” team in 2019, the juniors program was introduced in 2021, and a new feature will further boost it next season for the project’s fourth birthday. A supervisor of the matter alongside Benoît Vaugrenard, Joseph Berlin-Sémon tells us all about it, while taking stock of the program so far.

Joseph, the third year of the Juniors program has just ended. How did it go?

It went pretty well. We were following four riders this year and we had quite a young group with three first year Juniors: Eliott Boulet, Aurélien Kayser and Mattéo Moncoutié. Alongside them, there was also Titouan Fontaine, who was already followed last year. For three of them, it was therefore about discovering a new level while Titouan had greater ambitions with the French team, on the international scene, in addition to the motivation of joining the Conti team. They all won races, which is important for youngsters as it’s always reassuring to be able to raise your arms. We obtained very good results, notably with Eliott who won the time trial national title. We set up this project three years ago. The goal is to take it a step further each year, and to upgrade it by implementing small things. We’ll do so next year as well.

“This philosophy has proven itself for twenty years”

What is your assessment after the first three years of the program?

We achieved the objectives we set for ourselves. Let’s remember that the project aims to spot riders as juniors or u17, then to train them and support them up to the high level. First towards the Conti team, then eventually in the WorldTour. The results are one thing, but what interests us is the riders’ progress and their medium and long-term project. Some are a little worried about the future of the riders given that they come quite young, but they should know that we definitely have in mind this medium- and long-term vision for the rider. As we speak, we can be particularly proud to note that two riders have reached WorldTour level in three years: Lenny Martinez and Eddy Le Huitouze. We also have three riders in the Conti with Jens, Colin and Titouan. Besides that, we have three other riders in the WorldTour in other teams. We are therefore satisfied with the development work we provide, because it is the very centre of this project. I don’t know if we can already say it’s successful, because the careers of all these youngsters are only just beginning, but we’re certainly satisfied, and given that the philosophy of the team has always been developing young riders, we will continue on this path. Especially since this philosophy has proven itself for twenty years.

Can you tell us again what the Juniors program is made of?

The aim of the program is to provide monitoring and support to young riders, who are scouted both nationally and internationally. However, it is not about quantity. The goal is to offer concrete and effective help to a smaller group of youngsters. We take action on several facets. First there is the sporting one. We provide a coach, various camps in Besançon, in Spain and in Mayenne, with collective or specific training to prepare for the season’s objectives. To optimize performance, we also work on the position and do tests in Besançon. We offer material support, with a road bike and a time trial bike, and all the equipment they need to train and perform well in competition. We also provide human support, from the coach who is in touch with the club, the family and the rider himself. The latter also has access to the team platform, which is now identical from the Juniors to the WorldTour. Finally, the last aspect we come into action is educational support. We offer the same training as the Conti team’s riders benefit, and we try to raise awareness on important topics such as communication, nutrition, performance and even mechanics. In addition to all this, the team provides an annual grant of 1000 euros for the athlete so that he can finance his academic support. This is important to us. The ultimate goal is to include the rider in the core functioning of the team.

“To offer a project that tempts the youngsters”

Is “recruiting” now also difficult in this age category?

We clearly note this trend. I’ve been with the team for six years, and I do a lot of scouting for the Conti and also a bit for the Juniors program. I can say that it has changed enormously in recent years, with the creation of many development teams, but also with junior structures becoming more and more professional, often thanks to the support of professional teams. Professionalization is good, but it is actually becoming more difficult to recruit. Also, many teams that do not have youth support or a continental team are doing their best to recruit the world’s best Juniors. The World’s top-10 is offered to move directly to the WorldTour, while it might be necessary to complete another year of development at continental level. However, this trend is sliding more and more to the youngest categories. There is now a “battle” to recruit the best U17, even if we do not wish to be part of this process. We offer a project to the young rider. He likes it, so much the better, otherwise he will go somewhere else. There is indeed tough competition between the teams because everyone wants the best riders, younger and younger. We had the best development team in 2022, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to recruit last year because young riders were asked at the WorldTour level. It’s up to us to offer a project that tempts the youngsters, to show them our strengths.

Is it still possible to find that rare gem these days?

All teams usually follow the same riders, those who we see in the results and who often appear in the top-10. However, I personally also believe in this talent that will take a little longer to develop, that will pass under the radar, but which we will manage to scout. This is also what I like about this mission: finding this particular rider, who is not necessarily the world number 1 today, but who could become with work and thanks to what we would set up with him. Today, the cycling model aims to recruit the best and the youngest, but for me, as long as there are development teams, we must also keep room for these riders who mature later and that we can train for 2-3 years. I think there will be some.

“We’re satisfied to be represented in races at three levels”

Can you introduce the 2024 riders to us?

We will have seven riders. We are keeping the riders who were with us last year, apart from Titouan who is moving into the Conti. Eliott, Aurélien and Matteo will therefore be second-year Juniors. Four new riders will come along. There is Baptiste Grégoire, who will be a second-year junior and who is Romain’s brother. The goal is obviously that he follows the same path as his brother (smiles), even if he does not have the same profile at all. He is more of a climber. We will have another second-year junior, Axel Vuillier, who’s also from the region and rides for the CC Étupes. He has a climbing profile. We will finally have two first-year junior riders: Johan Blanc, who comes from mountain biking and cyclo-cross. He was runner-up in the French mountain bike championship in 2023 and winner of the U17 French cyclocross cup last year. He’s more of a puncher/climber, and quite versatile due to his different activities. Finally, there is Karl Sagnier, fourth in the Trophée Madiot this year, in which he won a round, and a French track champion. He is a rider who goes fast in the sprint.

At the start of the interview, you mentioned something new for 2024…

Indeed. For some time we had the idea of offering, in addition to the training camps, a coherent and complete racing program for the rider, based on their other obligations with their club, the regional team or the national team. The riders are already quite busy, but we wanted to add a few national or international races, in which they would therefore participate under the team’s colours next year. The goal is not to plan fifteen days of racing under the team jersey, but to limit ourselves to 5-6 races, which would be spread from April to September. Six races don’t seem like much, but there isn’t much room in the calendar to fit in additional races. The aim is above all to offer races which fit into their training and learning. This means going to races with various profiles: cobbled Classics, stage races, with time trials, possibly team time trials, mountains… It is important that the riders discover a little bit of everything, even if it is not their terrain, in order to be more comfortable later as U23s in particular. Next year, there will also be several races where the WorldTeam, the U23s and also Juniors will be brought together. We could therefore have the three levels represented at the same event, like in Plouay or Roubaix. It will also be a good experience for the youngsters to be around the team.

Is this step-up a source of pride?

It shows anyway that the program has been evolving over the past three years. As a team, we’re satisfied to be represented in races at three levels. That being said, I would like to emphasize that we do not want to be overrepresented with a jersey among the juniors category. We remain a support for the club and the rider, and that is very important for us. We are very happy that he can wear the team jersey during some races and training camps, but we do not want to overshadow the structures that train youngsters because we also know that they are essential. The Juniors program is there to offer a training and career plan adapted from juniors, so that they can look ahead. It can go very quickly or take as long as it needs, the goal being for the rider to go through the stages according to their learning and progress. There is no pressure or results goals among juniors. The long-term goal is for the rider to bring added value to the WorldTour team through his time in the junior program and in the Conti.

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