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An interview with Cédric Vasseur, October 2, 2007
Cédric Vasseur: Time to say good-bye
After 14 professional seasons, Frenchman Cédric Vasseur will bring his career to a close. The two-time Tour de France stage winner became a national hero overnight when he spent five days in the yellow jersey in 1997. At the Kampioenschap Van Vlaanderen he reflected on his career and he was very happy with what he had accomplished, as Cyclingnews' Bjorn Haake found out.
Cédric Vasseur's decision to retire wasn't precipitated by any key moment, rather, it was something that had slowly unfolded over time. "I am 37 years old and have been a professional for 14 years," Vasseur observed, and he wasn't sure how much more he could get out of the sport.
"I can't win the Tour de France and I can't win Paris-Roubaix. I am not a great champion like Musseeuw, Bettini or Boonen. But with the means I had, I did win the races I could," said the Frenchman modestly, having just returned from a brilliant second place at the GP Wallonie.
Despite the lack of great wins, Vasseur's entire career changed when, in 1997, he held the maillot jaune in the Tour de France for five days. It was only Vasseur's third full year as a professional, having turned pro in August of 1994, and the days in yellow changed him both mentally and physically. Riding for the French team GAN, Vasseur soloed to victory on stage five in La Chatre, and then held on to the lead for five days. And in a performance that would be repeated by his younger compatriot Thomas Voeckler years later, Vasseur fought his way through a decisive day in the Pyrennees behind an attacking Jan Ullrich on stage nine, just barely holding on for one more day by 13 seconds.
"The yellow jersey helped me a lot. You go over your limits when you have yellow. You can't do some of those things when you don't wear the maillot jaune," he reflected on those days where he battled hard against the top riders in the world, carried by a wave of enthusiasm that rolled through the entire country.
"It puts you in a different mindset," he reminisced on that year when he raced for the French team GAN. Not only did he stretch the limits of his abilities on the bike, his time in yellow also changed his ambitions. "I think it changed my career a bit," Vasseur said and added that "it increased my athletic appetite."
Since the days of Bernard Hinault there haven't been many Frenchmen in the leader's jersey of La Grande Boucle, and the nation celebrated his time in the lead of the race. "The maillot jaune is the greatest. I could show myself to the public. When you have yellow and you are French, then everybody follows you and encourages you."
There are other benefits that come with the most famous cycling jersey in the world, and Vasseur pointed out that "without the maillot jaune I don't think I would have landed with teams like US Postal and Quick.Step-Innergetic." Not only did the jersey bring offers, but better salaries as well: "It also helped to negotiate salaries with teams like US Postal or Quick.Step."
Vasseur took a few years to make his way to the US Postal and Quick.Step teams after his banner year in 1997. After starting his career with GAN in 1994, he stayed with French teams for the next five seasons, moving from GAN to Crédit Agricole in 1998 before signing with US Postal for the 2000-2001 seasons. He then spent four seasons at Cofidis before settling up his career with Quick.Step-Innergetic.
As for his favourite team in his long career, it was a tough choice. "US Postal with Lance Armstong was impressive." But in the end he opted for Quick.Step. "Not very original," he laughed, "but I think Quick.Step is a team that many riders dream of being part of one day. I arrived when Boonen was World Champion. And that year, Bettini won the Worlds, so both years I was there we had the world champion in our team."
He added that "In terms of professionalism and a plan for the entire year, I think Quick.Step is the most impressive. US Postal was very focused on the Tour and they weren't very concerned about the races before and after. Quick.Step is present from the Tour de Qatar until the Tour de Lombardie. All in all I will say Quick Step. In my opinion it's the team that most riders in the peloton dream about."
Bookend Tour wins
His career came full circle with another stage win in this year's Tour, ten years after the first victory. But Vasseur didn't pass that decade complacently - while he spent most years riding as a domestique, he was always on the lookout for the breakaways in the Tour. "I won in 1997 and I tried to win another stage ever since." After many long years of waiting, he finally made the critical breakaway on stage ten of this year's Tour, and with a combination of patience, composure, and pure explosive speed took a brilliant win.
"The victory in Marseille was beautiful," Vasseur reflected, but he said that his retirement wasn't influenced by the stage win. "I would have stopped even without that victory," the 37 year-old clarified that he had his mind already made up by the summer of this year. But it did allow him to leave the sport with dignity and the head held up high. He knew "that the work had been accomplished. The win came at a perfect time to say au-revoir et merci."
Vasseur, who lives with his wife and two children in Lille, named a desire to spend more time with his family as one of his chief reasons to retire. Spending a lot of time away from home is tough on a family life, a dilemma many professional cyclists face. The Quick.Step rider figured he does "around 100 races a year," and considering that sometimes it requires to be there a day before or after, he calculated he is gone "about 130 days a year. That is already more than one third of the year."
Even when he is at home in Lille, a great deal of time is spent out on the roads training, especially early in the season. "I train five, six hours a day. And when I come home I am tired," which is not the best condition for some quality time with the family. "Playing football with the kids is a bit difficult then," he smiled.
Vasseur admitted that life as a professional cyclist is more challenging than that of most other sportsmen. "It is true that in terms of the investment [of time] one should play football instead. There are also less problems with doping--at least the public believes there are. Cycling doesn't seem to be able to leave its history behind. In my opinion the sacrifices one has to make are more in cycling than in other sports."
He elaborated that he finds the negative image that cycling has acquired recently a bit unjust. "I think cycling is a really difficult métier, but yes, if you want a sport that is more supported by the public, you need to choose rugby, football or tennis. Although it is incorrect that cycling is the only sport that has problems [with doping].
The fan club
The Cédric Vasseur Fan Club has been on the road supporting its favourite rider for years, and even to the last, Jean-Claude and Régine Cappoen-Boudens will be on the sidelines to cheer for him. "We go to most races, except the Tour de France. There are too many people," explained Jean-Claude. Even though they didn't know each other beforehand, Vasseur is now well aware of the French couple that parks their camper next to the race sites.
Over the years Régine and Jean-Claude have accumulated quite a bag of stories to tell, like the day in 2003, when the first stage of the Route du Sud ended in Castre. "It was hot, 47 degrees centigrade," recalled Jean Claude. " We had already started to get to our next location, using some secondary roads. We came across a cyclist with a race number. He was in bad shape and had no idea where he was. We stopped and gave him to drink and to eat. It turned out that he [Jay Sweet] was dropped and wanted to quit at the feed zone, but his team was already gone and just left him behind." Régine added that "we drove him to the hotel, which wasn't easy as he didn't speak much French. In the end we had to drive to Castre anyway; that's just what we wanted to avoid with all the traffic."
Now that Vasseur is retiring, the couple won't be signing off from the cycling scene, rather, they'll find another Frenchman to cheer for. "Next year we will support Jimmy Casper," they revealed. Visibly excited when they saw the Unibet rider in the break during the race in Koolcamps, they cheered on the riders and took head count of who was where.
Hopefully, Casper will find the fan club's support as invigorating as Vasseur has. "It motivates me," said Vasseur, "Especially if it's a race like here in Koolcamps, where I don't have much of a chance. The two make me work harder and finish the race."
In just a few weeks, it will be all over for Vasseur. "I am doing Franco Belge, Paris Tours, Putte-Kapellen in Belgium and the Giro di Lombardia. This is a course I like well, and I have done it almost every year. I really wanted to do it this year as well. Then, on October 27, there is our annual, criterium-style race, which will be my good-bye race this year. It's an event with the Fan Club and there are usually around 400 to 500 people in the evening for a little party."
Then Vasseur will race one last time before opening the next chapter in the book of life.