Cyrille Guimard is now 71. He took on Eddy Merckx, he raced Bernard Hinault, he managed Laurent Fignon, he mentored Greg LeMond and, for better or worse, he formed Marc Madiot’s management style.
A pro with an eight year career whose handy sprint saw him win 94 races before injury forced early retirement in 1976 (after winning the French cyclo-cross title), he swapped Gitane bike for Gitane team car to mastermind Belgian climber Lucian Van Impe’s only Tour de France win that same year.
Guimard was 29 years old. Guimard was directeur sportif to fellow Breton Hinault and discovered Fignon, winning another six Tours de France, three Tours of Italy and a brace of Vueltas with that duo in the glory years of French cycling throughout the 1980s. He retired from pro team management in 1997, stayed involved with cycling, and, as a media pundit has watched British riders win all three Grand Tours in 2018.
Last year he was invited by the French Cycling Federation to be the national road team manager and ‘sélectionneur.’ Guimard has been around the block a few times.
Let’s just dive in.
Cyrille, why hasn’t a Frenchman won the Tour since Hinault back in 1985?
“There’s nobody good enough.”
Guimard should know what it takes to win and he doesn’t see any French winners. And ‘see’ is the operative word. “When I first saw Hinault aged 18 in Brittany I said ‘This guy will win the Tour.’ It was the same when I saw Fignon the first time, or Lemond and that’s why I signed them straight away and they all won. Hinault, in particular, was unique. There is no shop with him in it these days – or Fignon.”
Guimard returns to his theme. “No, we haven’t got a winner. There isn’t one individual who has the potential to win.” Curiously, in light of British riders ‘domination’ of the 2018 Grand Tours, Guimard notes that it wasn’t so very long ago that France ruled the roost. “But we did manage to win nine Tours de France in 11 years and if you add Van Impe who was in a French team with me, well, there’s another. We had Thevenet with two, Fignon two, Hinault five, that makes nine and Fignon lost in 1989 by eight seconds, beaten by a rider who I helped develop, Greg Lemond.
“There was a period where we won everything and we had everything, the riders, the teams, the staff and I had revolutionised training at that time, management, equipment, structures, we were the first to work in a wind tunnel with Renault at St Cyr, we studied biomechanics, but since Fignon we haven’t had any riders, they’ve all just lacked a tiny little something, they’re just not quite there, not for the win.”
It’s hard to believe that France doesn’t have the raw talent, an under-developed rider who has the attributes required to win the Tour de France. Perhaps its problem is locating this specimen?
Curiously, in light of the howls on social media about how aberrant it is that a ‘rouleur’ like Wiggins or Geraint Thomas can win the Tour, Guimard insists that is precisely what is required – and what has always been required.
French climbers are not what is required (and we can recall Richard Virenque here, if we must). “Romain Bardet can flirt with the podium but he’s not good enough in the time trials and Thibaut Pinot is the same. To win the Tour it’s not enough to be a ‘really good’ time triallist, you need to be a special (“un grand”) rouleur. Look, how many true, real climbers are there who have won the Tour? Maybe not even five.”
Watching on as Wiggins, Froome and Thomas have won the Tour de France, Guimard merely observes that, “We don’t have any rouleurs like that in France with a massive VO2 max – which is what you need – and you also need a great power-to-weight ratio to determine whether you can or cannot climb. It’s like a mathematical calculation.”
That application of science in cycling – which he pioneered – has been taken to new levels by teams, pushed to the limits and it’s not something that thrills him. It’s safe to say that Guimard is not a massive fan of Team Sky and understands the reaction they got. “For fans in the Latin countries I think they detect a certain froideur, a certain coldness. At the limit, Thomas has a little something about him, he is not totally ‘in’ the machine, he’s not part of the Sky machine, as it were.
“You know, people pick things up at an unconscious level too, depending on their culture, their education, its hard to explain perceptions and preference. Sky don’t give away any emotions, the way they race – and I have nothing against it – but it’s mechanical. When you see Bardet attack and no Sky rider budges to chase, the TV spectator sees that almost as an insult and the impression given is that there’s no fight going on here, all they see is a Sky rider sitting happily with his power output, calculating, riding. So you can perhaps understand the reaction of TV spectators, there is no spectacle and, at a human level, it lacks something.”
What though, of the criticism that they win because they have a massive budget? Guimard, laughs. “Yes, well, let’s be honest, when you don’t like something or someone, you can find all manner of faults! If that guy has a pretty wife, it’s because he has a lot of money. If not she’d be with me!” So, there you have it. Team Sky are a bunch of leaned-out robot rouleurs with a ton of cash who would steal your girlfriend if you gave them a chance. Guimard knows…