When you see riders ‘making the grade’ in France do you ever wonder how the connection was made, how they came to have a ride and a roof over their head in La Belle France?
A man who’s been responsible for more than a few British riders – including Jacob Vaughan, who we interviewed recently – getting their chance in The Republic is Monsieur Christophe Andre.
Christophe very kindly agreed to talk to us about his roles as a ‘scout’ on the French Cycling scene.
How did you get into cycling originally, Christophe?
“My father was a rider in the era of Anquetil and Poulidor – he was very friendly with the English rider Vin Denson [the first English speaking rider to win a stage in the Giro, ed.] that’s how I came to have an affinity with the British riders.
“I raced a little but wasn’t serious; my favourite parcours was the disco.”
How did you get into the ‘scouting’ game?
“My father was coach with the UCVA Troyes cycling club and English riders came there; Piers Hewitt [a strong sprinter, Hewitt was British Junior Sprint Champion and went on to win the historic Paris-Chauny Classic in 1983, ed.], Simeon Hempsall [British Amateur Champion and winner of the Paris-Troyes Classic, ed.] and Dave Spencer [Tour of Britain Milk Race stage winner, ed.].
“My father also coached the famous Simon brothers who were team mates of Robert Millar at Peugeot and that’s how I came to know him.
“As I said before, we have a long tradition with the British riders.
“But my ‘day job’ is with Orange France; the scouting I do for the love of the sport.”
And you coach too?
“When my father stopped coaching I did it for two years, one rider I especially remember working with is Rod Ellingworth [who is best known for his management work with the Great Britain and the Sky, Bahrain and now Ineos teams but was a good rider in his own right in the 90’s and early 2000’s, ed.] he was a good guy.
“I also helped John Herety [ex-Mercier professional and British pro champion, ed.] Kieran Page [British Champion on road and track, ed.] and Russell Downing [legendary ‘hard man’ British professional who was still racing until recently after a career spanning 20 years including Team Sky’s first race win by a British rider in a stage of the 2010 Criterium International, ed.].
“Russell was a big rider.
“I have my diploma for coaching but don’t have the time to coach these days.”
But you left UCVA Troyes to go to CC Étupes?
“The management changed at Troyes so I went to Besancon and CC Étupes which was setup in 1974 and has won the Coupe de France for clubs seven times.
“Alexis Vuillermoz (Team Total Direct Energie), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Kenny Ellisonde (Trek Segafredo), Petr Vakoc (Alpecin-Fenix), Adam Yates (INEOS Grenadiers) and Warren Barguill (Team Arkea-Samsic) are all riders who came up through CC Étupes.
“I’ve helped English riders here too, Daniel Lloyd [ex Cervélo pro and winner of the Vuelta a Extremadura, ed.] and Jez Hunt” [another legendary British pro and winner of the British Professional Championships twice and the GP Plouay in his days with French Team, Big Mat, ed.].
“Jez rang me and asked if I could find his brother Joshua a ride, so I placed him at UCVA Troyes.
“Then Josh asked me if I could help his friend to find a place – Adam Yates.
“Adam didn’t win a lot with Troyes but they could see he had potential and we took him on at CC Étupes, and now he’s a classic winner.
“Tom Findlay the New Zealand rider was with us too, a good rider – he was New Zealand u23 Champion and at Troyes I had Wayne Bennington who was Robert Millar’s team mate at Z-Peugeot and as an amateur he won the Paris-Mantes classic.”
What do you look for in a rider?
“There’s no common recipe, every guy is different but you listen to what they say, what their mentality is like and do they live the life of a serious cyclist?
“Between the ages of 17 to 21 is the best time to start to develop a rider.”
And the pro teams approach you?
“They come to me and say perhaps they need a climber, a time trial guy or a sprinter.
“The best sprinters come from the track, of course they must be able to get over the hills – but there’s not so much track racing in France anymore.
“I like to speak to a lot of guys to keep in touch with the scene.”
You have good French riders but you take on ‘Anglos’?
“Thibaut Pinot was with CC Étupes and so was Kenny Ellisonde; we have very good riders in France but they are like artists, not as professional as the British guys.
“The British, Irish and East European guys set a good example to the French guys who are not as disciplined.
“Pinot and Bardet are good riders but none of the coaches work on the time trial, which is so important if you wish to win stage races; in England they have the Manchester track and that’s a great centre from which to organise your coaching and training programmes – we need this in France.”
It wasn’t a good end to 2020 with Covid, teams folding and cutting down on numbers…
“The end of 2020 was interesting, it put some riders back on the road to humility.
“But the organisations who were nimble on their feet as far as the recruiting/transfer situation were able to emerge well – in the end the best teams have triumphed.”
What about the future for French cycling?
“The French federation must absolutely re-invent itself.
“It must look for prospects in schools – something which I believe Mr. Ellingworth did in the UK?
“And it needs to go look for sponsors instead of taxing clubs and charging big license fees.”
How do you see the future for professional cycling?
“Professional cycling will survive, just the same as life in general in the face of this Covid, or not…
“The question remains one of health and economics – and currently no specialist has answers to this global disaster.”