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Tour de France News feature, July 26, 2008

Persistence pays off for die-hard Chavanel

Frenchman consecrated by Tour de France victory after years of criticism

By Hedwig Kröner in Montluçon

Chavanel delighted the French crowd
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Cyclingnews diarist Sylvain Chavanel burst into tears after crossing the finish line in Montlucon at the finish of stage 19. Seeking refuge in the arms of his team assistant as the media descended upon him, the Frenchman celebrated a very special moment in his career. More than 'just' winning a stage at the Tour de France, Chavanel once and for all stuffed the mouths of his numerous critics, that claimed his ever-attacking way of racing was forever doomed to be unfruitful.

But the rider who scored the record for the most kilometres spent in breakaways at this Tour de France - 415, to be exact - quickly got a grip on himself again and was overjoyed to receive his very first Tour stage win podium honours.

"This victory proves that if you don't give up, you can one day achieve something," he commented about his habits of breaking away, that did pay off several times for him already this year. "Today was my day. I missed out several times at this Tour, and if I hadn't won today, I would have been frustrated, one more time. But I would have tried again!"

Chavanel's feelings were very personal. "It's a big relief, and so emotional as you could see at the finish. I thought about my best friend who passed away one year ago, last year at the start of the Vuelta. If he would have still been here, he'd would have gone berserk with joy. I also thought of my family and my children. So many things came out as the pressure disappeared..."

The 29 year-old took off on his sixth attack 78 kilometres into today's stage, and was finally rewarded. Despite some back problems he's been having since the beginning of the season - which he will have to follow up on after the race - Chavanel was motivated as always to try his luck. "I didn't believe in it very much," he said. "Last night, I couldn't move anymore because my back was killing me. This morning, I got up and I wasn't sure at all about what I could do today.

"Today, I raced à la Chavanel, and I succeeded."

-Sylvain Chavanel has always attacked, but rarely won. That changed Friday.

"But then, I didn't feel so bad and I was frustrated when the first break got away and I wasn't in it. So I stayed within the first 15 to 20 riders when Liquigas chased them down, and jumped away once they were caught. Jérémy Roy caught up with me and we just held on. And in the end, I proved to everyone that if you hold on, you can do it!"

Jérémy Roy of Française des Jeux proved to be a perfect breakawy companion on the hilly 165km course and the pair quickly gained a significant advantage over the bunch: over five minutes with 40 kilometres to go. "With Jérémy, we managed our efforts well," Chavanel continued. "We took the climbs softly and gave it full gas on the descents. That's what we had to do." But the Frenchman knew that some teams were chasing to possibly making it come down to a bunch sprint, so he was cautious. "I started believing in it with 30 kilometres to go, not before," he added.

As the gap was still three minutes 15 kilometres before the line, it became clear that either Chavanel or Roy would score the victory. Contrary to Chavanel's other victories this season (stages at the Tour Mediterranéen, Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and the two Belgian semi-classics Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl), where he won solo, the Frenhcman this time waited for a sprint. "My sports director told me to try and drop him before the finish, but I didn't listen," Chavanel said.

"I felt that I was strong enough for a sprint. I'm not as bad as that in small group finishes. But I do leave the mass sprints to my brother, who is much stronger than me! But for this sort of finish, I was pretty confident. I tested him several times in the false flats. I accelerated a bit and I saw that he had some trouble passing me, so I that reassured me for a sprint."

JÚrÚmy Roy (Franšaise des Jeux) and Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis)
Photo ©: AFP
(Click for larger image)

In the end, "it was all up to the pedals", as the French say. "We battled it out between the two of us. I managed it well psychologically, but in these sort of moments, you're never completely self-confident." Chavanel led Roy out under the flamme rouge indicating the final kilometre, and safely took a bikelength home.

"I achieved my goal here, which was to win a stage. Moreover, I was constantly on the attack on this race. It confirms my great season start this year. This season and this win is phenomenal for me, as well as for my team, which I leave at the end of the year," he commented further. Indeed, Chavanel is leaving his Cofidis team to join Belgian Quick Step in 2008, where he will be given a special role in the Spring Classics.

Chavanel was often criticised for his way of racing, and drew a lot of satisfaction from his victories this season, but even more so from this one at the Tour. "Today, I raced à la Chavanel, and I succeeded. It's not because I started to win only this year that there has been a change. I always raced this way. Of course, when you win, your tactics are portrayed to be perfect. And when you lose, they say you just don't have it. If I hadn't won at the Tour this year, I would have gotten more criticism again. I'm used to it, I live with it.

"Now, I race for myself, for my own pleasure, and I don't listen to all that anymore. I'm sure that many of my fans today were really happy for me and that I made their day today. That's what counts for me."

In defeat or in victory, Chavanel always thinks of the next challenge. Even if he just achieved the biggest win of his career, he was fast to think of the coming days. "I would like to do a good performance in the time trial tomorrow, for sure," the triple French time trial champion said. "And then, there's still the Champs-Elysées to come! I always liked coming into the Champs. I still want to give the public some spectacle!"

Overall, Chavanel said the outcome of this year's Tour for himself as well as for his team was very positive. "Cofidis has had such a great Tour. We came here with the objective of winning a stage - we won two. We were present in the escapes nearly every day. Amaël Moinard will finish first Frenchman on GC. We achieved an exceptional Tour with a very well-knit team," he concluded.

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