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Under the glitz and glamour of pro cycling’s superstars and five-star favorites lay the dark horses.
Though they may be stars in their own right, these riders don’t have the superstardom to transcend the sport globally. On Saturday in San Remo, that all changed for FDJ rider Arnaud Démare.
Hardly mentioned in the run-up to Milano-San Remo, Démare, a U23 world champion and stage winner at Paris-Nice a week earlier, weaved his way through a chaotic sprint on the Via Roma to become a Monument winner at just 24 years of age.
“You see these days, cycling is more open for the outsiders,” Démare said. “There are more outsiders than favorites, so it is more open for other riders to win — and it is time to profit.”
Démare comes from a family he refers to as a “legion of cyclists” — his dad still races, including on Saturday, while his son was racing the 107th edition of Milan-San Remo.
After abandoning Paris-Nice, Démare the younger returned home to focus on recovering in order to have a shot at a result in San Remo. On Wednesday, he did his final full training ride, and despite the good sensations, he was worried.
“I trained for 205km,” the former French national champion said. “The first 100km by myself, then I met my father on his scooter 10km from home, and we rode together 100km further. I thought about the endurance races, the classics that last more than six hours. It was a long training day, but it helped me with a little polishing that could make the difference. At the end of Wednesday I was tired, maybe too tired, and I was worried because I only had 48 hours to recover.
“It went well in the end.”
Démare came into the WorldTour at a young age, racing his neo-pro season as the under-23 world champion. He found success quickly, even at the highest level, winning the Vattenfall Cyclassics WorldTour race a week prior to his 21st birthday. He continued to make progress into his breakout 2014 season that included 15 wins, including the French national road championship and a career-best 12th at Paris-Roubaix.
All the most impressive is this was done while competing for race days and wins at FDJ against another French sprinter, Nacer Bouhanni, who is now with Cofidis. FDJ manager Marc Madiot choose to stick with Démare, rather than Bouhanni, and that decision appears to have paid off.
“I came into WorldTour races very young and I made some choices,” Démare said. “Today those choices turned out to be the good ones. With my win today I am showing the public the work I put into it really paid off.”
It did indeed “go well in the end” for Démare, but not without a bit of adversity. He awoke with his legs feeling “not too fresh.” At a critical point in the race, with the peloton rumbling toward the Cipressa climb, Démare was involved in a crash that included a fair number of riders including five-star favorite Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
“I thought it was game over,” Démare said. “From the team car, I was told that Michael Matthews’ group was behind, but that I shouldn’t worry. William Bonnet was along. I had great legs on the Cipressa and successively I found my teammates, Matthieu Ladagnous, Kevin Reza, and Ignatas Konovalovas, who placed me in good position at the foot of the Poggio. I thought I had lost a lot of energy, but I climbed the Poggio very well despite my efforts.
“After the Poggio I was already satisfied with my placement, but then adrenaline came into play and I thought, I managed to recover on the Cipressa, and despite the pain, my legs are still strong — I cannot give up in the last kilometres.”
Démare’s resiliance paid off as he captured the biggest win of his career.
“Milano-San Remo is already a huge win for me, and for stage races you need much more experience,” Démare reflected. “Last year I had difficult times with the WorldTour races, but all the work that I did really paid off. I am super happy for French cycling. I am very proud that I won today.”
With the win, Démare became the first Frenchman since Laurent Jalabert to win “La Primavera,” and he hopes this win will propel his team him into Paris-Roubaix.
“It is really paying off, the work the team has done,” Démare said speaking of the improvements the team has made in terms of equipment and logistics. “Already when Thibaut (Pinot) was third at the Tour de France it was boosting the team, and now winning this great classic today will help the whole team at the start of Roubaix holding the knife between the teeth.
“Winning Milano-San Remo will open more doors,” he continued. “I am still young, and I need to train more, but I want to still do beautiful races like today. This is certainly paying off for the last two years.”
If it’s possible for a former U23 world champion to be an outsider, Démare may have qualified over the first few years of his pro career. After Saturday in San Remo, those days appear to be over.