La Plongée Profonde | In The Weeds With The French Cyclocross National Championships

The 2019 French cyclocross championships, held in Besançon on the familiar Malcombe track that has been a regular feature of the Coupe de France, gave us some exciting battles on a weekend when mud ruled all and technical skill was just as important as mental strength and stamina.

Going into the weekend there were several big questions:

  • Would Franche-Comte native, and hometown favorite, Caroline Mani take home her 5th Elite national championship? (Her house is literally 1.5 km from the course) Mani had been quoted on Friday as saying that a win at French nationals would save her season, which she described as the hardest of her career. Facing an unfamiliar schedule of 40 hour work weeks in addition to training,, Mani admitted that she just didn’t have the drive to train and race at her previous level—one that netted her a silver medal at the 2016 world championships.
  • Could Francis Mourey close out a storied career with a 12th French national title? A two-time U23 national champion and 9-time elite winner, Mourey was, for nearly two decades, the face of French cyclocross on the international stage.
  • After a phenomenal and emotional win in 2018 could Steve Chainel take home a second consecutive Elite national title?
  • Would the half dozen or so World Tour & Pro Continental riders that tend to pop up throughout the French winter at local, national and international cx races have any impact on the day’s racing?
  • It wasn’t a question of if, but which, U23 men’s rider from Chainel’s Chazal-Canyon team would take the win. Would it be Antoine Benoist? Could Mickaël Crispin continue on with the fine form he had been showing since the Namur World Cup? Or would someone else spoil the party?

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The Elite Women’s race was one that would be watched intently given that Pauline Ferand-Prevot  was absent. This left the top-3 favorites as Caroline Mani (Van Dessel), Marlene Petit (Team Cross Safir Ganova) and the still U23 pro roadie, Juliette Labous (Sunweb). Mani had noted that this season has been the hardest of her career with few results to show and no racing to speak of since November. The hometown advantage—and having previously won a national title on this same track—seemed to play to Mani’s strength as much as the nasty conditions. In the end, it was a two woman battle between Mani and Petit as they built up  a good gap over the surprising U23 talent Marion Norbert Riberolle. Labous was also at the front until she slid out at the bottom of a steep off-camber drop and lost time in picking herself and her machine off the deck. As the final lap wound down, Mani had nearly 20” over Petit with Riberolle in third. Much like the British national champs, the U23 women were run with the elites and thus no jersey was on offer for Riberolle. This seems a lost opportunity given that nearly half the field were U23s.

When it was time for the Elite Men to tackle the course there were many emotions at the start grid. Last year’s win for Chainel had been a wildly popular one as he is a highly likable and personable pro who has dedicated much time in the past several years to building a true development pipeline with his Chazal-Canyon team. Venturini was back for redemption after toeing the line last year as the number one favorite and just having a miserable day on his way to a forgettable 6th place finish. With a full year of World Tour racing under his belt with AG2R, Venturini had only one race in his legs—the prior weekend’s C1 in La Meziere where he was second … but nearly 2 minutes behind Wout van Aert.

What about some of the other outsiders who could drop in for a good ride? Matthieu Boulo spent a long time in the US this year, racking up UCI points and had put together a good year. Same can be said for Fabien Canal (Team Cross Safir Ganova) who turned in some solid results at the US World Cups. Could Yan Gras (Chazal-Canyon) capitalize on the rocket starts he’d been putting in at every race throughout the season? Would any number of French road pros decide to show up, pin on a number, and burn it all down? The biggest question on everyone’s mind was whether Mourey (S1NEO Concept Cycling Team) would go out on top. In a pre-race interview Mourey said that he was there to win and that if he didn’t think he could have won, he wouldn’t have taken to the start.

All of the pressure was on Mourey especially given that the conditions were Louisville-esque, with heavy mud—conditions in which Mourey always excelled. Like Mani, Mourey was also the local favorite, hailing from the nearby town of Chazot. Ever the fighter and contrarian—for a decade he was the lone Frenchman mixing it up at the top of the sport—Mourey has not let his lower level of support over the past few years impact his fight. Gone are the days of the FDJ bus rolling up to Coupe de France races just to support Mourey. That has been replaced with a small camper van and a fleet of chartreuse green canti brake S1NEO bikes. [To me this is one of the reasons to love Mourey. He has always eschewed the fanciest technology, the Spanish training camps in the sun, and the allure of big money cx-specific teams for environments where he could both focus on cyclocross—his #1 love–and be a team leader at 3 week grand tours. For a number of years (pre-Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil) Mourey was the top French finisher for that particular years’ grand tours. How many guys have finished top-20 in the Giro AND own medal in the elite category in cyclocross? I’d hazard a guess that Mourey may be alone in the modern-era for such an accomplishment.]

In the end it was Venturini that was able to overcome a slow start to push ahead with Mourey and Canal who gradually left the strong trio of Clement Russo (Arkea-Samsic), David Menut (ex-HP BTP/Auber93) and Fabien Doubey (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) to chase in hopes of landing on the wide angle podium. All six of these riders were fortunate to avoid the crash of Matthieu Boulo (Team Pays de Dinan)—Americans may know him from his past two years of racing in the US—who slipped a pedal and crashed within moments of the race start; Boulo recovered and went from last to a solid ninth in the end. After navigating the start chute crash, the comparatively large field (for a European Elite race), began to string out as riders made their way around a horrendously muddy course that saw descents so treacherous the riders were forced to tripod and kick their way down the inclines.

Venturini noted afterwards that he felt like Canal was smoother than him throughout the race, but that he was able to ride a wave of confidence he’d never experienced since that magical January day in 2011 where he led a tricolore sweep of the podium at the Junior Men World Championships in St. Wendel. Reading through the list of names he left in his wake that day underscores the potential Venturini has always had. But what of Steve Chainel, the defending champ? In a post-race interview he noted that he started the day hopeful he could repeat the performance he turned in 12 months prior in Quelneuc. Immediately, however, Chainel said he knew he was on a bad day. Heavy legs, technical mistakes that kept repeating themselves, and the realization that even a top-5 was out of reach meant that Chainel was resolved to pushing on and making the best of a disappointing outing. Asked if he contemplated quitting the race Chainel was quick to say no. “I always tell my team to never quit and that they should finish each race without regret.”

Further reflecting on the day Chainel really laid himself and his emotions bare. He said that he was happy to see Mourey close out his career on the podium in his national championship outing, that he was happy to see a cyclocross specialist like Venturini win…but that he was also sad. This sadness was borne out of the fact that with Venturini focusing most of his energies on the road with AG2R and with Mourey departing, Chainel now feels alone at the top of the sport. Mourey, he noted, paved the way for people like him, John Gadret and Arnaud Labbe to focus on cyclocross, tap into a strong support network, and realize success in the sport. This, said, Chainel, is what he is now trying to accomplish with Chazal-Canyon. Looking back at a 16th place finish, Chainel turned things positive when asked what was next for him: “It’s now up to me to find one million Euros and make sure that Antoine Benoist becomes U23 World Champion.”

[Ed. note: This whole interview is great and really underscores how much Steve Chainel cares about French cyclocross. https://www.directvelo.com/actualite/71658/steve-chainel-je-vais-etre-le-vieux-con You can feel the emotion just from reading it]

Mourey was equally emotional saying that he was glad to close out a two decade career with a podium and that he didn’t have any regrets on the day or his trajectory in the cyclocross world. His focus, he said, was now on the next World Cups in France and The Netherlands. Whether he would be in Bogense as a member of the French team for World Championships, Mourey couldn’t say. The Monday morning news that Clement Venturini’s Sunday win had not changed his plan to skip Worlds may mean that we do see Mourey on the startline. If so, seeing him battle for one last podium pedal would be an amazing way to bookend one of the most storied careers on the first two decades of the 2000s. [The reason that Venturini is not going to CX Worlds is because he will begin his road season that same weekend at the UCI 1.1 GP La Marseillaise where his teammate Alexandre Geniez will look to defend his 2018 win—one that ultimately defied the pundits’ claim that winning La Marseillaise means a rider has peaked too early and is sure to have a lackluster season.]

Steve Chainel’s vision of an arc-en-ciel jersey for Antoine Benoist (Chazal-Canyon) certainly took a big step forwards with his dominating ride on Sunday in Besançon. Underscoring his domination this year–in the U23 ranks or even in Elite races–Benoist has 19 days of racing under his belt and has not finished worse than 9th. Currently Benoist is leading the Coupe de France in the Elites, is 3rd in the World Cup U23 standings and was 5th overall in the EKZ CrossTour standings. Oh, also, he is only 19. This guy is going places. Along with Mickaël Crispin, Chainel has a seriously strong duo of U23 men in his stable and a vision of an arc-en-ciel jersey hanging in their service course in the near future seems a very real possibility. Despite having an off-day Crispin still turned in a solid ride for 14th. The former junior worlds medalist—silver at Zolder in 2016 behind Jens Dekker—has had a great year and as he continues to find more consistency is another rider the French can be excited about for the next decade and beyond. In the end Benoist finished 1:30 up on Eddy Fine who is no slouch with a raft of World Cup top-5s to his name in the past two seasons.

Follow Taylor Jones on Twitter and Instagram at @jtaylorjones

Feature photo © Neil Schirmer. Follow him on Instagram at @neschirm.

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