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An interview with Pierre Rolland, June 17, 2008
Is Pierre Rolland France's next big thing?
One year after France's Rémy Di Gregorio won the climbers' classification at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, another great French hope – Crédit Agricole's Pierre Rolland – sat down with Cyclingnews' Jean-François Quénet to talk about his dreams for the future and his decision not ride the 2008 Tour de France.
It was touching to see Pierre Rolland kissing his polka dot jersey at the end of this month's Dauphiné. After getting to know him through his team manager Roger Legeay it's been clear for some time that he was definitely a promising rider, and with his win in the Dauphiné he joins an illustrious list of previous polka dot winners, such as, Charly Gaul (1953), Federico Bahamontès (1963 and 1964), Luis Ocaña (1971, 1972 and 1973), Bernard Hinault (1979, 1981 and 1984) and Richard Virenque (1995 and 1996).
He certainly had to win the jersey the hard way. On the last day towards Grenoble, the 21 year-old fought tooth and nail to counter-attack Bouygues Telecom's Yuriy Trofimov, who had escaped earlier in the stage. It was a fantastic battle with Rolland's team-mate Dmitriy Fofonov, who was the eventual stage winner beating the young Russian at the top of the two first climbs in defence to the young Frenchman's jersey. "Do I have it?" Rolland questioned Legeay after crossing the line.
He was equal on points with Trofimov but having led over the hors catégorie col de la Croix-de-Fer, he'd taken the jersey. Getting a positive answer from Legeay, who had taken him to the start in his personal car as he is the new, enfant prodige of French cycling, the relief was clear to see.
"This jersey is a big symbol," he quietly explained after the stage. "I like climbing and I would like to wear the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France one day as well, but I don't know yet what kind of rider I really am." In the youth categories, Rolland has won races in flat areas like the Loire-Atlantique Espoirs near Nantes but he's never been identified as a pure climber.
After being one of the promising, but not headlining French juniors in 2004, he moved from his home town of Orléans – 100 kilometres south of Paris – to Brittany in order to learn his trade with the Super Sport 35 amateur club run by three former French professionals: Stéphane Heulot, Xavier Jan and Lylian Lebreton.
Through their tutelage they directed him up through the ranks and towards the big time with Crédit Agricole, where he turned professional in 2007, aged 20. The impact was immediate and he won a race during the first month as a pro at the Tour of Gabon. Later in the year he confirmed his qualities with a solo stage win at the Tour of Limousin.
A very encouraging first pro season gave him the opportunity to be part of the "A Team" at Crédit Agricole in 2008. Although the French squad had a reduced program with starts denied at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro d'Italia, Rolland was selected for Paris-Nice, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Dauphiné.
In the 'Race to the Sun,' he accumulated excellent results in the hardest stages: third in Saint-Etienne, ninth at the Mont Ventoux, fifht in Sisteron. A member of the early breakaway at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he climbed La Redoute alone at the front and finished the 'Doyenne' respectably (97th), highlighting his potential for longer, harder races.
However, perhaps the biggest surprise was his ride that Dauphiné, where he stunned even his own team when he finished second to Cyril Dessel on stage four. "But I ride to win, not to come second," Roland confidently explained at the finish. He clearly has character and ambition.
Although he could have secured a top 10 overall finish at the Dauphiné, he preferred to enter the morning breakaway of the queen stage to La Toussuire. That's how he passed the col de la Croix-de-Fer in first position. He thinks he has learned a lot from the hunger-flat that cost him 15 minutes on the same climb where Floyd Landis blew up during the 2006 Tour de France, but he had attracted so many congratulations and media attention already that he could have taken it easy on the last day. Rolland is not this kind of rider: he went in a counter attack for scoring points for the climbers' classification and made another top 10 (ninth) in Grenoble at the end of a significant stage comprising the famous trilogy of the Chartreuse with col du Granier, col du Cucheron and col de Porte.
"I gave it all because this race was my Tour de France for the year," he said. Rolland is young but clever: "It's not worth going to the Tour with only the intention to finish it," though. "Since Paris-Nice, I've know that I can win big races so I don't want to go to the Tour and just ride to finish. I want to go there and do something."
"As a bike rider, I want to feel the shudder you get when you do something on the road the crowds react. That's what I ride for," he said. "It's great to hear your name with the encouragements of the crowd in the climbs of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But the best feeling is to cross a finishing with the arms up in the air. That's what I look for. I've always wanted to be a professional bike rider."
Is he a champion in the making? France have had its fair few of promising riders labeled with the tag of 'the next big thing,' ever since the likes of Bernard Hinault. Rolland might be the next in line but he'll be aiming to be more than just a hope in the coming years...
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Images by AFP Photo