Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by SWpix.com/Cor Vos
“Pure sprinters are less and less welcome on the Grand Tours, that’s for certain.” Given the headline on this story, there are no prizes for guessing that quote comes from Arnaud Démare.
The Frenchman made it during the first week of the Tour de France, supporting an argument made in L’Équipe that sprinters, especially “pure” sprinters like the Frenchman, are getting squeezed out in three-week races as the organisers of these events endeavour to increase the spectacle.
Démare went further, telling the French sports daily: “Not only are there fewer and fewer sprints, but what’s more, when there are some there is more than 2,000 metres of vertical gain on the stage. As a result, they’re not true sprinters’ sprints. On the last Tour the sprinters were exhausted. In 2019, Marcel Kittel wouldn’t have won a single stage.”
Fast forward five weeks, and Démare is completely in his pomp a week into the Giro d’Italia. Usually a slow starter in Grand Tours, he already has three wins to his credit. The first, in Villafranca Tirrena, was by the narrowest of margins over Peter Sagan, the photo finish the only means of splitting them. Two days later, in Matera, Démare was so far ahead of second-placed Michael Matthews that the Frenchman and his long shadow cast were the only features in the photo finish image. In Brindisi, he baulked several attempts to shift him off his chosen wheel and never looked likely to overhauled once he’d launched his sprint.
His second success was the kind of all-conquering romp that is very rarely seen in bunch sprints nowadays such is the level of competition. It was a throwback to Kittel and Mark Cavendish at their untouchable best. The question is, was it a one-off or is Démare setting himself apart from the rest of the sprinting pack? And, if it’s the latter, why?
Since racing restarted in late July, Démare has won 13 times. While his Giro successes are the only ones among that baker’s dozen at WorldTour level, he’s faced and beaten all of the other leading sprinters of the moment, most notably at Milan-Turin, where he distanced a good number of his rivals with impressive ease.
Like other riders who have thrived in this wholly revamped season, the Frenchman cites the coronavirus-enforced lockdown as the reason for his current purple patch, and specifically the quarantine that was imposed on Groupama-FDJ and other teams at the Tour of Abu Dhabi in February. It prompted a change of approach, mentally rather than physically. “There’s a before and an after when it comes to Abu Dhabi,” Groupama-FDJ directeur sportif Sébastien Joly says of the team’s sprinter in today’s L’Équipe.
Démare was confined with roommate Ramon Sinkeldam for the best part of a fortnight, the pair passing the time posting entertaining videos on Instagram: the Dutchman hoovering; the Frenchman dancing and skipping; the two of them sporting dressing gowns and headbands like prize-fighters and emerging to the Rocky soundtrack to start a turbo session on their balcony of their hotel room. At the same time, and more importantly, it brought the Démare and the riders in his lead-out train even closer together, restored some of the vim that the Frenchman had lost during a 2019 season when his confidence went, and set him on the path to reassessing his goals.
This process continued when he returned to France just as the country was about to go into total lockdown for seven weeks. He took advantage by spending more time with wife Morgane in their permaculture garden at their home in Picardy, to the north-east of Paris. This, says Groupama team manager Marc Madiot, led to Démare focusing more on his nutrition, giving up any food that he felt would be detrimental to his performance.
“When the season restarted, he was completely liberated, determined to achieve whatever he possibly could, without over-calculating,” says Sébastien Joly.
There’s never been any doubt about Démare’s talent. He won the world under-23 title in 2011, as well as two stages at the Tour and Milan-Sanremo in 2016. Yet, despite an overall tally of 73 victories, the 29-year-old Frenchman has been inconsistent. He won nine times in his second pro season, 15 times in his third, but hasn’t reached double figures in five seasons since then until his current purple patch.
He acknowledges now that he’s more relaxed and, as a result, more lucid in his thinking and tactics on the bike. His win at Matera encapsulated that perfectly. On a stage with a good deal more than 2,000 metres of vertical gain, including a third-category climb 25km from the line and a short, but steep inside the final three kilometres, Démare judged his effort perfectly.
Near the front going on to that second hill, he slowly drifted back in the peloton, staying in the saddle all the time, and allowed himself to recuperate after he crested it. Then he started his final effort, initially picking his way through the peloton until, coming out of the final bend with 500m remaining, he was fourth in line. He accelerated with 200 to go. “As soon as I went, I said to myself, ‘I’m going for the win. No one is going to come past me,’” he said afterwards.
Rather than thinking about what he can’t do, he’s focusing on what he can, and that change of emphasis has enabled him to adapt to the deliberate attempt by race organisers to add spice to sprint stages. This is, according to André Greipel, the winner of 22 Grand Tour stages, an essential part of being a sprinter in this era where spectacle is so prized.
“They’ve put the route together like that for a reason and in the end we shouldn’t care too much about that,” the German sprint veteran told me during the Tour. “When a sprinter sees the last kilometre banner, he’ll already have forgotten how many metres of climbing he’s done before.”
Démare is in that groove and currently nobody looks capable of knocking him out of it.