On July 24, Antoine Duchesne came to the end of a singular career experience. Alongside David Gaudu, the 30-year-old Canadian achieved his best ever Grand Tour while highly contributing to the good mood that defined the Tour’s squad. With a clear head, he looks back on this unforgettable month but also recounts the difficult way that brought him there.

Antoine, how do you feel more than a week after the end of the Tour?

I’ve been a bit sick the last few days, that’s what’s been annoying. Otherwise, I’m fine, I’ve recovered quite well. I slowly get back on the bike. I still don’t feel very well because of a little flu, and I especially ended the Tour with a big saddle injury. It’s very painful to sit on the bike and that’s why I need some rest. Mentally, I got back to my little routine at home and enjoyed time with my family. I was kind of dead and mentally empty for a day or two. I didn’t even enough energy to talk, but it came back quickly (smiles).

“We took 100% of what we could this Tour”

Looking back, how do you assess the team’s Tour?

I often think about it, and I have the same analysis as a week ago: we really had a great Tour. We came very close to an exceptional Tour. It could always be a little better, but when we announced at the start of the Tour that the goal was the overall podium with David, it was still very ambitious. We believed in that objective, but at the end of the day, I think fourth place was probably the highest place achievable. Eighth would have been disappointing, fourth is probably the best we could hope for. We fought until the end, everyone always was up to the task. We saw pretty amazing teamwork, on and off the bike. The team spirit was great, we didn’t experience any big setbacks, we tried everything, we didn’t make any mistakes, we were aggressive, we came close to stage wins, to the final podium as well, and we took 100% of what we could from this Tour. For me, there is nothing negative to report. I also think it gives hope for the future. This was the first time David fought for the overall over three weeks. He managed his bad days really well, as he would lose 30 seconds or a minute, not twenty-five minutes. He fought like a leader. It therefore motivated everyone, and everyone gave the best of what they could every day. You never want to be the one who fails, so that pushes everyone up.

Did this goal of podium give you an extra-boost?

Absolutely. We all signed up for that goal. As long as we were in the mix, we stayed on this course and there was no question whatsoever. We were all aware that anything could happen, but that also applies for the biggest favourite of all. This is also what makes the beauty of the Tour. Everyone believed in it, and everyone was ready to do what it took to keep this goal alive as long as possible. That being said, racing with a real outsider for a podium spot also brings additional pressure. It means being up there everywhere, all the time, in all terrains.

Starting the last week of the Tour, you also gave a super-optimistic speech.

I did believe in what I said, and when you look closely, we weren’t far from that. Thibaut had two great performances, and if he goes all the way in Hautacam, he can bring back the polka dot jersey. Valentin finished second in Foix, David was fourth overall. We didn’t miss much. I think that kind of talk can inspire. Sometimes, when you don’t know me, you might think I’m just a joker. Talking nonsense can sometimes make you look like someone who’s not serious, but I think I’ve shown that laughing and taking things lightly doesn’t take away from ambition and performance. Doing things with a smile just helps you to keep a good mood and not overthink. Taking things lightly does not mean taking away seriousness in work. You actually also need to do things well if you want the others to listen and respect you.

“It wasn’t fake”

How much does the group atmosphere influence performance?

A Grand Tour is very long… We prepare the Tour very specifically two months prior. From May 1st, that’s the only thing you have in mind. The training is tough, it’s exhausting, then you leave home for a month. The days can be extremely long. The routine can become oppressive: oatmeal for breakfast, transfer, briefing, race, transfer, massage, osteo, physio… Sometimes, you also don’t have your greatest days on the bike. So, if in addition to all that, you get bored, you don’t have conversations and you stay alone in your bubble during breaks and recovery times… The wheel can rapidly turn in the wrong direction. Having this atmosphere, wanting to meet at the table in the evening, being able to laugh until the moment we get out of the bus, I think it does have an influence. For a month, we live together 24/7. I don’t like leaving home, leaving my family, so if I have to, I might as well have fun! We have shown that it can go together with performance. It surely made a difference. I think everyone, riders and staff, had a great month. When there is a good atmosphere, you just want it to keep going. Once the wheel is turning, it pushes everyone in the right direction. Usually, if I’m asked to do a job, I do it, it doesn’t matter who it is for. That being said, I might do it with more pleasure and more motivation for someone I like. It’s easier to work for people you really appreciate. In these cases, you then might do the additional pedal stroke or kilometre that makes a difference.

Do you feel having experienced one of the most powerful adventures of your career?

I do, really. From a personal point of view to start with. I performed better than ever on a Grand Tour. I felt comfortable throughout all twenty-one stages, I did not really have bad days, and I managed to do my job really well. Then, talking about what people saw from us on social networks and in the media, it was not fake. The human experience will be remembered by everyone. The small parties on the eve of the rest days, the finish in Paris, the night that followed, the smiles on everyone’s faces for three weeks… It is kind of rare. Everyone could see how we were fighting on the bike, and the staff also performed in their field. I have lost count of the videos where we see them singing at the table. The atmosphere was great for every single person. I think many felt a bit melancholic as they headed home on Sunday.

“The gratitude from the leader is all I need”

It was one of the first times that you went for a high GC as a domestique. Did you feel a particular pressure?

Absolutely. It was the first time I came to the Tour for this goal, and I knew that I was going to have a very important role. The stressful part, sometimes, with our domestique jobs, is that it doesn’t only come down to legs. It is also positioning, being in the right place at the right time, apprehending the race, fighting for position. Valentin, for instance, knew that his work would mostly be physical, and he was very strong. It’s not the same kind of stress. Also, on the Tour, everything is multiplied by ten. We had a lot of pressure during the first week to try not to lose time. I was very stressed at the start of the second stage, but as soon as we got through it, successfully, I felt that I was ready for it, and it took the pressure off me. Then I did what I had to do. The pressure slowly turned into confidence. This is what I had lost a lot in the past two years, during which it had been difficult also mentally, not just physically. It’s not easy to regain confidence, because it needs consistency. It was a long time coming, but this year, I was able to slowly rebuild my confidence throughout the season. Now, the Tour is definitely special, and when you go there to compete for the podium with your leader, it’s certainly not the same as when you go there to take breakaways. I knew what I could do, that the legs were very good, but I needed to get there and prove to myself that I really belonged at this level. I felt that after the first day.

David recently said that the team was not afraid of anything on this Tour.

We may have arrived with a few complexes, but we quickly left them behind. Stefan was a big, big asset from that point of view, because he is really confident, and he forced us a bit to make our place in the bunch. He helped us establish ourselves. Then, when you realize that guys like Rowe, Van Hooydonck, Van Baarle & co, who are next to you doing the same job, do crack at the same time as you, you realize that they are not stronger, that they are not more capable. Little by little, you gain confidence and you tell yourselves that you have the experience, you have the legs and you have a solid leader behind you. The more David made his place, the more we were able to make ours and be respected. The other teams saw that we were up there and that we were not going to give up at the first nudge.

David also claimed that you “all finished fourth of the Tour”. What do you make of it?

It is a great illustration of the three weeks we had. Everyone did their job, everyone was where they were expected to be. Each rider was chosen for a specific role and each one executed his role. This was necessary for the leader to be able to fully use his potential. We all did what we had to do, and that allowed him to do what he had to do too. As a domestique, you know that your name won’t be at the top of the bill. You just get satisfaction when you feel that what you have done has been seen, valued, and appreciated. Personally, that’s all I ask. The gratitude from the leader is all I need.

“Today, May 20, 2021, I wouldn’t be able to defend a GC on the Tour, but that’s what I want for next year, so I have a year to get there!”

At the start of the season, were you hoping to be at the Tour de France?

Yes. During the interviews in November, I told the team: “This year my goal is to be on the Tour. I know what that implies, I know that I will have to earn my spot, that I will need to perform. I also know that I may not be there because I will not have been good enough, but if that is so, I will accept it 100%. I’m going to prove to you that I have my place on the Tour, I want to do everything to be there, that’s my primary objective and I’m going to work all year round to be 100% for the Tour, and not to be 100% to be selected”. That’s what I did. I had my best season in terms of feelings, performance, and with the work I was able to do. For me, it was not a surprise to be selected. I worked for that, and in all the races I took part in, I was always up to the task, and I even went further than what I was asked to do. I think that’s why I got my spot.

Why did you set this goal for yourself last winter?

In 2020, I had been selected for the Tour, and I fell sick a week before the start. We later realized it was mononucleosis. I had to stop my season after that. I was completely out for three and a half months; I was half dead. The previous year, I was also on the short-list, but I eventually had a problem with the artery which required surgery. Two years in a row, the Tour was stolen from me. Last year, it was extremely difficult and demanding to return to a competitive basis. It took a lot of time and sacrifice. I struggled a lot to complete the Giro. We had the pink jersey, I defended it for three days and I was dead after that. I really suffered, but I said to myself: “Today, May 20, 2021, I wouldn’t be able to defend a GC on the Tour, but that’s what I want for next year, so I have a year to get there!”. It was my personal challenge. During my career, I have been more motivated by this kind of goal than by the desire to win this race or achieve that performance. I just want to be better than I am now. I have always fought more against myself than against others. I wanted to be able to perform on the Tour and support a great leader. I couldn’t do it at the time, so I asked myself: “How am I going to get there? What is my plan?” This is what has driven me ever since.

You wanted to get back to where you “left” your career in 2019?

Exactly. I went through a lot of doubts. It was hard to recover from my surgery, to recover from my mononucleosis. I asked myself a lot of questions. Was I still able to do it? Could I return to my level, or even go further? And then, at the end of last season, I felt that I had returned to more or less normal feelings. It gave me a lot of confidence. I knew from then on that I was going to resume training with way much advance compared to the previous winter. At that point, I told myself that it was possible to be stronger than I had ever been.

“I overcame doubts to reach the level I always dreamed of having”

When you look back on how far you’ve come, do you feel any pride?

Hugely. The older I get, the easier it is to be aware of this kind of thing. I also realize that the good times are often very brief. Personally, I had more difficult times than good times. It’s really important to be aware and enjoy these short, good times, because you don’t get many of them. You have to enjoy them, keep them, absorb them. In our sport, everything goes so fast. Very quickly, we’re heading towards the next race. This Tour, however, I lived it 100%, I made the most of it, I was proud of what I was able to do. I know where I come from and what it cost me to come back. It was a good time, it still makes me happy as we speak, and I continue to soak it up.

You also entered the top-100 overall for the first time on a Grand Tour (62nd, editor’s note). Is it worth noticing for you?

I’ve never looked at my results, but I did for this one, and I think it’s worth mentioning. I was able to do the hard work and be strong enough to go further and longer than before, without experiencing bad days. I got through the mountain with much more ease than before. On every hard stage, I think I lost fifteen minutes less than in the past. I was still there when there were only 35-40 riders left at the top of some climbs. I’ve never experienced that in my career. It allowed me to have a lot more fun, and it’s also more exciting because you feel that you are part of the race. It made me very proud to be there. I often laughed about it afterwards when going back to the bus: “Guys did you see? There was no one left, and I was there!” Everyone knows that I often struggled in the mountains, so it became kind of a running gag. It’s also nice to see that everyone is happy for you. They knew it was something for me to be there.

On social networks, you also wanted to emphasize the importance of your loved ones in this journey.

I did, because I saw all those people congratulating me, saying I was great, but I wanted those persons not to be forgotten. While I was having the “ride” of my life on the Tour, performing better than ever, my wife had to manage a two-month-old baby on her own. She was helped by friends, family, who did the job that I’m supposed to do. When I told the team that I wanted to do the Tour back in December, my wife was already pregnant. We knew that he was going to be born two months before the Tour, and that I was going to be away for his third month of life. It required real dedication. We talked about it, we wondered if we could embark on this adventure while knowing that there were going to be tough times. My wife signed up for it, and she sacrificed way more than I did. She put aside her job, her company, so that I could get there, so that I could do the Tour and perform there. Everyone is very proud of me, but she gave up a lot for me to get there. Nobody says it, nobody talks about it, but I think it’s important to point it out. This is my story, but that might ring a bell for some 150 guys who were at the start of the Tour. Without her, I wouldn’t have any of this.

In a few words, how would you describe your year?

The best learning from this year is that, despite all the setbacks I went through, I set myself a big goal, I did everything I had to do, and I managed to achieve it. It shows that when you do the right thing, when you put in the energy and believe in it, together, you can achieve anything. It’s been a great year, which gives me a lot of confidence for many things, and not just on the bike. When I think about where I was 2-3 years ago, I can say that this is the biggest achievement of my career. I overcame doubts to return to that level, to the level that I always dreamed of having.

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