After starting its season in Rwanda in late February, “La Conti” Groupama-FDJ opened its French calendar last weekend on the Tour des 100 communes and the Grand Prix de Lillers, in the North. Fighting for the top positions in both races, the team based in Besançon came away with two top-10s: a fourth place on Saturday with Thibaud Gruel, and a sixth on Sunday thanks to Noah Hobbs. Next appointment: the Youngster Coast Challenge.

For its first race of the year in France, “La Conti” did not experience the most enjoyable weather on Saturday. Over the 183 kilometers from Béthune to Barlin, cold, rain and wind followed the riders on the Tour des 100 communes, which made for a “a very complicated race”, according to Alex Chouffe, sports director of the squad this weekend. The weather conditions were also followed by incidents of all kinds during the first two hours of racing, covered at an average speed of 45 km/h. “We suffered crashes and punctures,” Alex added. “Titouan [Fontaine] and Ronan [Augé] crashed after 30 kilometers and Titouan was taken to hospital because he was suffering from his elbow. Lewis [Bower] had a puncture after 50 kilometres, and Thibaud after 70k, when there was a big fight going on.” Echelons also occurred halfway through, and while Noah Hobbs and Ben Askey managed to catch the first group of fifteen men, Thibaud Gruel was forced to put in a huge chase to come back to the front. “He pushed on his own and went up from group to group, then returned to the small bunch which was behind the group of fifteen,” explained Alex. “If he didn’t make this big effort, it was over because nobody was riding behind.”

“Thibaud hoped for better”, Alex Chouffe

The first two groups then came back together, and after recovering a bit, Thibaud Gruel went on the attack shortly before entering the final circuit, with about fifty kilometres to go. “The legs did the talking at that point, the strong men went away”, Alex said. “They took a minute and got along well until the last climb, with five kilometres to go. At that point, four of them took a gap including Thibaud, they left both Uno-Xs behind, but they didn’t get collaborate.” The lack of cooperation allowed the return of the three dropped riders, and the numbers then worked to the advantage of the Uno-X Development team, and of Halvor Dolven in particular. “Thibaud got a bit surprised by the attack of the Uno-X rider 800 metres from the line,” added Alex. “He took 100 metres and kept them. Given the efforts he made throughout the race, Thibaud came up short to take second place.” The young Frenchman eventually finished just outside the podium, in fourth position. “We were a bit frustrated after this hard day, but everyone who didn’t have any problems was in front,” said Alex. “Thibaud did the best he could, knowing that he had already spent quite some energy. We were happy to fight in front, but we were fighting to win, and Thibaud was a bit upset with this fourth place because he hoped for better.”

“The team has gained maturity”, Alex Chouffe

On the Grand Prix de Lillers on Sunday, under poor weather once again, “La Conti” started with seven men despite the crashes from the day before. Also, the goal was clear on the 33-kilometre circuit to be covered six times. “We wanted to put a rider in the breakaway,” explained Alex. “Unfortunately, we did not succeed. It eventually went after two hours of racing, with seven riders. Knowing that we had Matt Walls and Noah Hobbs for the sprint, we put one guy to pull, then a second. We took charge of the race to limit the gaps. We always kept the breakaway to around one minute and a half. We got help from other teams, but it wasn’t enough.” Reduced to four men over the laps, the breakaway was therefore able to stay away. “We would have liked to have more help to get back on the breakaway in the final, but we were never able to close the gap,” Alex said again. “Matt also had a puncture seven kilometres from the finish and that destabilized us a little because we didn’t know if we should wait for him or not. Only Thibaud was left to pull in the final, the other teams did not participate. We came back to fifteen seconds, but then we lacked fresh workforce. The end of the race wasn’t what we had hoped for.”

In the end, Emmanuel Morin took victory from the break while Noah Hobbs took second place in the peloton, meaning sixth of the day, thirteen seconds later. “We were up there on both days, which is important,” said Alex. “Compared to last year, we feel that we have really improved. Last year, we suffered in both events. This year, we fought for victory both times. We note that the team has gained maturity, and this bodes well for the future because they did some great things this weekend, although it was complicated with the cold and the rain. We were also happy to have Matt Walls with us to share his experience and reassure the boys in critical situations. We come out of the weekend with riders in good shape and without any major issues.”

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