“We have reached the height”
In 2022, the Groupama-FDJ continental team won twice more than its first three years combined. Twenty-five victories, countless podiums, major races under their belt, twelve winners out of thirteen riders and eight men making their way to the WorldTour team. An exceptional season, which the sports director Jérôme Gannat agreed to talk about at length.
Jérôme, with hindsight, how would you rate the Conti’s 2022 season on a scale of 1 to 10?
I would surely get closer to 10, but I can’t give a 10 because nothing is ever perfect. There is always another step to achieve excellence. Therefore, I would say nine.
I think there is not much to complain about in terms of results. This point that is missing might be found on the Baby Giro, because even if we achieved good performances, we did not manage to come back with the final victory, which was the main goal of the team. Other than that, all objectives were met. We have won on all the major races of the U23 calendar.
“We managed to build a group”
Could you have imagined such a successful season back in January?
We knew we had a good team, good riders, but I remember often asking myself the same question in February/March: how are we going to make everything work properly with so many strong riders? We had a good squad but that didn’t guarantee anything. We needed all these young men to work together to make it work. It was a new team, a young one, with different nationalities, different profiles. We knew that we were going to get results, but not that many. The number of victories (25 with the Conti’s jersey, 29 including the national teams) and the number of riders who won at least one race (12) are strong evidence that everything worked out well. Above all, I think we managed to build a group. In the second part of the season, it is often harder collective-wise because there are more personal interests. This year, the fact that many signed in the WorldTour team and that we decided to trust all these young guys also allowed us to extend the team spirit until the end.
What are the season’s highlights that come to your mind?
There surely is Romain’s victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where we launched a big attack 80 kilometres from the finish. We ended up with three riders from the team in front, and I think that was quite impressive. It’s quite rare to have three men in a four-man breakaway when it comes down to the legs. I also remember the day before the last stage of the Baby Giro. We got together to take stock. It was a strange feeling, because we were third overall, we had put in some good performances, had done some impressive racing, but we all had this bittersweet feeling. We still had this last stage left, Romain said that we would not leave empty-handed, and eventually, Romain and Sam got first and second on the last day. These moments when we took time to do our own analyses and point out our mistakes were important. We worked in such a way that everyone had the floor, that the rider had the opportunity to give his take during the briefing to get to a strategy commonly built. Of course, I had my plans, but our discussions often led us to confirm my initial choices.
The Conti team gave itself three years to become the best development team in the world. Have you achieved it?
I am always very careful with that because it may seem pretentious, but this year, I do think we have been the best one. Marc and Yvon also told us that it would take us about three years to reach a kind of completion. This deadline has been met. Now, when we look at it with a little hindsight, we also know that we are going to start a new cycle. We reached the status we wanted, but like in all development teams, the riders do not stay forever. We have reached the peak, but we are about to start something new.
“People probably did not expect them at this level”
Among the explanations for your success, you often mentioned the quality of the roster.
With riders like Romain, we clearly started with a lot of confidence. It was much the same with Lenny, in another profile. However, when you take guys like Sam, Finlay, Enzo, Jensen or Lorenzo, they are riders who have made enormous progress and broke through between the start and the end of the season. People probably did not expect them at this level. Romain and Lenny confirmed their potential, and all the others have passed a milestone, which we were hoping for. I believe this is a major fact. Sam Watson, for example, has made incredible progress throughout the year with the Conti. Jensen Plowright had not won a race in 2021, and he became one of the best sprinters at the U23 level. Reuben and Paul confirmed their past performances. Scouting and recruitment were very good from the start, but we also managed to make them improve.
You also had to manage everyone’s ambitions and desires to create a proper team spirit.
We managed to gather everyone around the same plan, and I think that the Groupama-FDJ identity has something to do with it. Everyone thinks it was a pleasure cruise, but we had long talks. Sometimes, not everyone would agree, but we all tried to talk to each other, to explain why we were acting in such a way. Even if everyone had their share of ambition, we always managed, at the end of the briefings, to agree to go for one guy. Sometimes, and it was quite ambitious, we also gave ourselves the opportunity to make 1-2. Everyone managed to put their personal goals aside for the group’s benefit at one point or another, in order to aim for victory. We didn’t want to make 3-4-5, we wanted to win. I think the group understood our message, and I think the fact that they lived together in Besançon helped a lot. We also tried to make them understand, especially at the start of the season, that there would always be positive feedback. The fact that twelve riders out of thirteen won proves it. At some point, the one who had received wanted to give. Lorenzo, for example, worked a lot at the start of the season, and the guys wanted to pay him back and reward him for his dedication. It goes the same for Enzo. We also tried, with the sprinters, to change the roles from time to time, so that everyone could give AND receive. The guys knew they would have something in return, but this team spirit came after a hard work. It doesn’t come naturally with young riders. We needed to make them aware of their responsibilities. It doesn’t happen overnight, with a wave of a magic wand. You need to work on it throughout the year.
How did this team spirit influence your way of racing?
The riders understood the meaning of sacrifice. When they had a job to do, they would do it 100%. We also knew, at every race start, that there was a possibility of victory, that we had to race for that goal, and therefore to go for the best rider. We kept this approach for almost the entire season. However, we did not want to close the doors. We could have named unchanging leaders for the whole year, but I don’t think it would have worked if we had done that. We wanted each rider to be able to perform individually and to have the opportunity to win at one point. Victory gives such a special feeling. For that reason, it is really satisfying that twelve out of thirteen riders were able to experience this feeling. We also felt that when one won, the whole group was happy.
“A tremendous opportunity for the WorldTour team”
Did it become a goal to make everyone win?
We started thinking about it from the mid-season. It was not the prior goal, but it could have been a real achievement. The fact that we got a lot of victories at the start of the year and that many were guaranteed to move on to the WorldTour also freed everyone. We probably rode more instinctively. Some riders were aware that there were priorities in the team at the start of the season, but they were able, during the year, to have their own opportunity to win with the team.
Are the spots available in the WorldTour team for 2023 also an explanation for your successful season?
I remember Marc’s speech, which really emphasized this point. The course of the season, both in the Conti and in the WorldTour team, also led to making a lot of room for the youngsters. I think the context made this opportunity to sign eight riders possible. It was almost a logical next step for them to go in the WorldTour, even if we’re very much aware that not everyone can stay with us. That being said, for us as Conti staff, when we see that 13 of the 28 team riders for 2023 come from the Conti, we do say to ourselves that we succeeded. The goal remains to develop riders for the WorldTour team. For me, this is the essence of the team. So far, we can say that it works very, very well.
Yet would you have imagined that eight Conti riders would join the WorldTour team?
We knew, given the roster, that some would join the WorldTour in the near future. Let’s say their development was accelerated. For some, we thought it might be more complicated. We always hope that they will improve, but for some, the progression has been spectacular, and that is what allowed them to sign in the WorldTour team. Today, eight riders are making the jump, but we certainly wouldn’t have imagined eight at the start of the season. Work, training, the life in Besançon and the environment led the group towards this point. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for the WorldTour team to keep this energy alive, with these eight riders who have been together for a large part of the season. A few years ago, in football, we saw that Ajax Amsterdam had become one of the best teams in Europe with players all coming from its Academy. This group advanced together in all categories until the Champions League. Likewise, I think the WorldTour team has a great opportunity here. In addition, the youngsters know the environment, they have all raced with the WorldTour team, they know everyone. I think it was really the right time. There was an exceptional year group, and we had to take advantage of it. This is an opportunity that had to be seized 200%. This will bring a breath of fresh air to the whole team, as Stefan Küng says himself. This also allows the team to look quite easily 2-3 years further.
“To make 2-3 riders break through will be the challenge for the next few years”
Looking at the 2022 record, did the lure of victory take over from development?
The main objective still is to develop. That being said, if you can develop and win races, that’s even better, and that’s what we managed to do this season. It’s not contradictory. We are aware we had a fantastic year, and we were all sad to leave each other. I believe, and I think it’s very important, that everyone had a lot of fun this season. I don’t think any rider, or staff member, can say otherwise. This idea of fun, at 19-20 years old, must be protected at all costs. I have always insisted a lot on this, because what brings enthusiasm and motivation is the fun of cycling and of riding as a team. This is very important, because we also know that everything gets more professional at WorldTour level. Everyone had a lot of fun, and with the staff, I think we managed to make the riders like the team and make them want to stay.
Is winning the riders’ loyalty also an objective?
It can be, especially since the contracts’ offers get so big nowadays. We already had the opportunity to talk about it with Marc. It is also our role with the Conti to make sure that they want to stay. This is in line with the team’s slogan: “the desire to come, the pleasure of staying”. This is something important, because we knew that all these young guys would potentially have offers from other teams, but we wanted them to feel the team’s vibe and our passion for cycling, which is perhaps different from that of the others. Looking back on it, that was also a bit of a challenge. We had to spread this idea of a team like no other, where everyone is very professional but where the functioning remains human, so that it makes them want to stay.
From now on, the spots in the WorldTour team could be less numerous. Will you have to target their needs more?
We will resume with a squad where there isn’t a profile that stands out, but it will also be the role of the Conti to make them lean towards an area where they can perform best. To make 2-3 riders break through will be the challenge for the next few years. The needs of the WorldTour team are going to be a little different. We may have done it a little less this year, but previously, the goal was for a Conti rider to join the WorldTour to bring specific added value: as a domestique, for a particular profile… This pattern should come back over the next few years. We won’t have riders like Romain or Lenny every year, but we need to find some in a 2- or 3-years’ time.