Steve Chainel, the rider manager who hopes to revive the cyclo-cross in France

Steve Chainel in 2012 in the jersey (muddy) of the FDJ.
Steve Chainel in 2012 in the jersey (muddy) of the FDJ. DAVID STOCKMAN / AFP

This season in cyclo-cross, the races follow each other with an invariable scenario and nothing monotonous. Let's summarize: a Dutchman with limousine origins isolates himself in front in the first round (Mathieu van der Poel, grandson of Raymond Poulidor), behind a horde of Belgians (led by the world champion, Wout Van Aert) pedal for the accessits. Pontchâteau (Loire-Atlantique) welcomes this Sunday, January 20 the 8e round of the World Cup; Van der Poel at rest, the victory should therefore be summarized in a Belgian history.

Read also Cyclo-cross, a Belgian specialty

On the French side, a Top 10 would already hold for a small feat. Steve Chainel will have a small pinch in his heart as he rushes away without his blue-white-red jersey. "I took a fly last Sunday," admits the champion of France 2018. A bad start, "A nasty shovel" in the first lap on the circuit Besançon and Vosgien "Disconnects in the head" to finish at the 16e square.

Two days later, the smile is already back to receive his home in Remiremont (Vosges). The rider puts on his other cap, that of Team Chazal-Canyon's manager, one of the three French teams to benefit from the UCI (Cycling International Union) cyclo-cross label this season. In the premises lent by the town hall, the 35-year-old rider prepares the café and proclaims his desire to get out of the rut of cyclo-cross in France: "Everyone says" Belgians have everything you need"I want to copy them, but to my sauce. " Since the professional teams (like the FDJ Marc Madiot) have abandoned the undergrowth and no longer allow some riders to cumulate cyclo-cross and road, the French model is to reinvent.

In Besancon, the French champion, Clement Venturini, was only on leave. "My AG2R La Mondiale leaders give me a gift by letting me come here", he confessed to The Team before the race. A little trick and then goes away. Venturini will not be present at Ponchâteau, nor at the world championships in Bogense, Denmark, on February 3rd. His employer has already sounded the reminder of the road.

From "immature" runner to invested manager

"The road seasons have become much longer, says Steve Chainel. Today, the small budget that teams put on the cross during the winter break leaves on races in Australia, the Emirates or South America. " A nine-year-old road racer himself, he is convinced that Clément Venturini, 2011 junior cyclo-cross world champion, has not forgotten the muddy terrain of his debut. "If I had a million euros to mount my continental team [1[1re division] as I wish, I pay Clement the same salary he receives at AG2R for the road. He would come to my home to have fun in cyclo-cross for four months and follow up with the spring with an adapted road program. "

With a budget (he does not communicate) but evaluated at just over 100,000 euros for its fourth season, the account is not there yet. So, to keep alive his four-rider structure, Chainel discovered an unexpected entrepreneurial spirit compared to the image of the boyish joker, endearing but "A bit immature" hung on his bib during his road career.

"Basically, I am a follower, someone who lets himself live, but I found myself moving, knocking on the right doors. When I present my project to Mr. [Alain] Chazal [propriétaire d’une entreprise de charcuterie et viande en gros], I go to the bottom, we discuss and in the end he asks me: "How much do you need?" And it gives me 90% of the budget without even talking about return on investment. "

Assistance from the region and the department complete the budget, not forgetting the bikes provided by the Canyon brand. Consultant for the Eurosport channel from March to October, Steve Chainel does not pay salary but hopes to pay soon mechanics and his physio, now volunteers. On the side of the runners (whose expenses are supported by the team), only the recent champion of France hopes, Antoine Benoist, receives "A small envelope at the end of the year".

Get inspired by Van der Poel and Van Aert

Third in the category of European championships in November, the Breton embodies at 19 years the future of the discipline in France. "Antoine has a crazy potential, swear Chainel. He has genetics, talent and a crazy mind. He will be on a world podium if he does not pass on the road. " From Clement Venturini to Fabien Doubey and even Julian Alaphilippe, the French have shined in juniors and hopes for ten years. But the appeal of bitumen (and its guaranteed wages) has always been stronger.

Antoine Benoist, does not ask the question yet. "All these riders went on the road because there were no structures like Steve's. They had a good level on the road too, I still have a lot to learn, " admits the licensee to the club of Nantes-Atlantique among amateurs. Not yet compared to them, the young man imagines a career plan at Van der Poel and Van Aert. Under 25, the two monsters of the discipline are divided world titles since 2015 and also the revenues, estimated at more than one million euros each per season.

The talent knows no ground, they also tickle the road with some success. In 2018, Van Aert finished 9e of the Tour of Flanders and won the Tour of Denmark, Van der Poel took the silver medal of the European Championship. "They show that you can also walk on the road after a cyclo-cross season," points out Antoine Benoist.

When he looks in the rearview mirror his career, Steve Chainel takes the example to give the meaning of his entire project. "I loved my career on the road, but I went a little bit by substitution. I would have been more fulfilling by devoting more to cyclo-cross. It is this word "substitution" which I do not want to hear anymore for boys like Antoine. I want to give them this opportunity to have fun in their discipline. " And demonstrate that cyclo-cross is not just a matter for Belgians arbitrated by a Dutchman.

Alexandre Pedro (Remiremont (Vosges), special correspondent)

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