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July 22, 2011. Stage 19, Tour de France. Pierre Rolland races onto Alpe d’Huez with Ryder Hesjedal for company and then dispatches the Canadian on the lower slopes. The 24-year-old Frenchman pushes onwards but is caught and passed by Alberto Contador.
Rolland keeps his cool and digs in, sticking with Samuel Sanchez when the Euskaltel rider catches him. As they draw closer to Contador, he sits on Sanchez’s wheel, using that opportunity to recover from his earlier efforts.
Soon after the junction is made, Rolland unleashes a huge attack. Contador responds but can’t answer a second surge and the Frenchman is free. He hits the jets and pushes on to a superb stage victory, fending off Sanchez’s desperate pursuit to land the first French victory on Alpe d’Huez since Bernard Hinault in 1986.
It’s a huge day for Rolland: in addition to the stage win, the performance puts him in the white jersey of best young rider and sets him up for a 10th place overall in Paris.
He then returns the following year to net eighth overall and take another mountain stage, beating the rest to La Toussuire – Les Sybelles.
His talent is obvious, his potential huge. French cycling recognises him as a big hope for the future.
Fast forward several years, though, and Rolland is still to deliver on that early promise. He’s taken some solid results since: he was fourth in the 2014 Giro and 11th in the Tour. Last year he was 10th in the French race.
He also won the 2013 Circuit de la Sarthe and the 2015 Vuelta a Castilla y León.
However it’s fair to say that his earlier momentum hasn’t continued. He’s still a very good rider, of course, but his progress has stagnated. A rider once seen as a future Grand Tour winner hasn’t yet reached the podium.
Cue a move to Cannondale Pro Cycling, and what is only the second team change of his professional career.
A fresh start
Now 29 years of age, Rolland knows the time was right to press the reset button. “I had seven years in the same team,” he told CyclingTips last week. “I was always following the same routine and it is time for a change, to open my head with a new project, new environment, a new trainer, new preparation. Everything new.
“It is like starting a new career.”
Rolland was speaking in the team hotel on Mount Teide, almost 2,200 metres above sea level in Tenerife. The location has been used by riders such as Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali in the past, as well as their teams, and has helped riders reach the kind of form needed to battle for Grand Tour success.
Rolland said he has only tried altitude training once before, spending three weeks at La Toussuire prior to last year’s Critèrium du Dauphinè. He’s hoping that it helps him build a higher level, but is just one part of a multi-faceted push for improvement.
He and his new team will look in a number of areas, tackling things from a new direction in order to try to eke out gains.
Drawing on the experience of Cannondale coach Sebastian Weber and team directeur sportif Bingen Fernandez is part of that drive.
“I’m continuing with my [usual] trainer but have good collaboration with Bingen and Sebastian Weber,” he explains. “I have good experience with them while my trainer has a very good feeling with me. They exchange information, and that is very good.”
In January, team general manager Jonathan Vaughters sparked off some controversy when he suggested to VeloNews that Rolland’s training was very dated.
“The amount of improvement that that guy still has available to him was astounding to us and our sports scientists,” he said then. “He was training like someone was training in 1975. He’s really made some big improvements and that will be interesting to see this season.
“We were able to make larger improvements than I’ve ever seen, even with Continental riders we are not able to improve them that much. It was just a massive improvement in his aerodynamics. Hopefully that will translate to the road, we don’t know yet, not until the first time trial of the year.”
Unsurprisingly, that caused a kerfuffle with the French media. Some backtracking from Vaughters followed and, weeks later, Rolland plays things down.
“I said one phrase that was not in context,” Rolland says, perhaps referring to a misunderstanding which led to Vaughters’ comment.
Fernandez clarifies the situation. “He didn’t change his trainer,” he said, adding to the conversation taking place between Rolland and CyclingTips in the hotel’s restaurant area, shortly after a six-and-a-half-hour training spin.
“His trainer remains the same. The only thing he changes is the approach, how we are doing things.
“We have a cooperation between me, Sebastian, Pierre and his trainer. We create enough cooperation to try to build his condition and to try to see from different eyes how he could improve. To try to see everything in a different perspective.”
Time trial gains
As Vaughters stated, the area of aerodynamics is a big part of the drive to go quicker.
In January Weber spoke to CyclingTips about Rolland’s time trial position, saying that major gains had been made. “In terms of aerodynamics and time trialing, I am very excited about what we did with Pierre Rolland for the time trials,” he said.
“If you see a picture of him [on the TT bike – ed.], I think you wouldn’t guess it is him.”
Importantly, he said that he had seen in the Frenchman a real willingness to embrace the suggestions. Some riders are reluctant to change things too much, but this hasn’t been the case.
“I was in Aspen in October and we went to Los Angeles for tests in the velodrome,” Rolland explains. “Already in October I had my TT bike ready for training. In November, December, January, February, I was training all the time on my TT bike. In other years, including last year, it was just some training before the races.
“This time, I have 2,050 kilometres done on my TT bike. It is a big change for me. And the TT position – I feel very good, it is better.”
Limiting losses in time trials is an important part of helping Rolland’s Grand Tour aspirations. He’s a climber and has made his gains in that area in the past. However battling for the overall in a three-week race requires more than the ability to go uphill fast. Being faster against the clock is vital.
That’s just one area, however. Rolland has also tended to haemorrhage time in the early part of the Tour; in 2011 and 2012 he was nine minutes behind heading into the mountains. He was just under seven minutes back in 2014, while last year he was almost 12 minutes in arrears.
That kind of time loss torpedoes any hope of a top five or better, and avoiding this in the 2016 Tour will be vital.
“Last year I lost 12 minutes in the first week,” he acknowledges. “My condition, my preparation was good, it just didn’t translate into the results.
“The first week of the race is a game. You lose time … it is possible that you crash in the finish after three days. It is the Tour, anything can happen. I hope to change this and to arrive in the first climbs without having lost any time. After that, my results will be better.”
While luck will continue to play a part in how that opening week goes, the help of his teammates is seen by Vaughters as a vital component. He wants the other riders to work hard to usher Rolland into the right position and to keep him out of trouble.
If that is achieved, and if the usual pre-mountains time loss is avoided, then who knows how high he can finish? There is no way to put a figure on it, but Vaughters has had breakthroughs with riders such as Christian Vande Velde and Bradley Wiggins in past Tours and would like to do the same again with his new signing.
He is fully aware of his potential, and will do what he can to help deliver on that.
“The team is amazing”
Rolland looked to be in good shape in Tenerife. He was motivated, riding hard on the climbs when Weber directed the riders to make efforts, and also appeared to be enjoying himself with his new team. He joked around on the training ride CyclingTips tracked them on, and looked relaxed in their company.
Improving his level of English has been a big help and it is something he has worked on since the first team camp in Aspen in October.
“The new team is really good,” he says enthusiastically. “It is amazing. There are 15 nationalities in this team. It is very good to open the head, to have a new environment, a new culture. I’m enjoying it.”
As regards his physical level, it’s too soon to be sure – thus far, he has just ridden the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, where he was a quiet 44th overall – but he is optimistic.
“Training is training, racing is racing,” he responded, when asked how he was going. “But I feel good. After Paris-Roubaix and the other races, I will tell you how good.
“I think the level is better [than at the same time in other seasons]. I have been working hard this year. I have made big changes to my training. It is February and, this level … for sure it is good.”
Next up for him is Paris-Nice. He’ll then ride the Criterium International, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, the Tour de Romandie, the Critèrium du Dauphiné and – possibly – the French championships prior the Tour de France.
If everything goes to plan, he’ll arrive at the start of the latter in top physical and psychological shape. Ideally, he’ll also have clocked up some decent results too.
“In previous years, his team worked for him in all circumstances before the Tour and in the Tour,” said Fernandez, referring to Europcar. “Whatever happened, they were working for him. This time, he has to prove that he goes to the Tour as a leader. He has to show that he is going well.”
Rolland agrees, and indeed embraces that position.
“I have changed my team. I have new teammates, new director, a new manager. There is an obligation to win or do a good result before the Tour, because it is not the case that I will arrive in the Tour saying ‘I am the leader because last year I had top ten, or top five in the Giro.’ No, that’s not enough. I must prove this role.
“Because of that, I want to achieve the best result in all of the races that I do. And if I can win, then that is better, for sure. This year, results before the Tour are important … very important.”
Looking back, Rolland is clear on what his Tour highlights have been thus far.
“For sure it is Alpe d’Huez,” he says, referring back to his duel with Contador and Sanchez and that historic echoing of Hinault.
“But the second win in La Toussuire [the following year] is better, because if you win one time, it is okay. If you win the second time, it is confirmation. That was important.”
Wearing the mountains jersey for some of the 2013 Tour is also a good memory, but he is fully aware that those career highlights are several years ago. At 29 years of age he is nearing his peak, in terms of age, and will be trying to combine his physical maturity, his time trial gains, the new guidance he is getting from Weber, Bingen and others plus the teamwork of the Cannondale riders in the opening days of the Tour to clock up a best-ever Tour showing.
That drive brings with it a degree of pressure, not least because he’s a Frenchman in a French race. However he feels he is fully capable of dealing with it.
“The Tour de France is the best race in the world, the best event,” he smiles. “It is a world event. I have ridden seven Tours de France and it is okay now. There is no problem with this. The pressure is just from me.
“It is just because I want to do good. I don’t care about the journalists, or the others – the pressure I feel is just pressure I put on myself.”
So, all going well, just what does he think he can achieve?
“I don’t like to speak before. I’ll speak after,” he says, laughing, but also making the point in a definitive manner. “I don’t like [to make a prediction]. Why speak before?
“I have one objective in my head. My directeur knows my objective. It is a common objective.
“I know what it is. I’m not going to speak of it,” he says, laughing again, but also sticking to his position. “I prefer this.”