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Think of the 2017 season thus far and three names probably spring to mind: Greg Van Avermaet, who won four cobbled classics, including Paris-Roubaix; Philippe Gilbert, winner of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Amstel Gold Race; and Alejandro Valverde, who already has 11 wins, including La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
This trio of superstars have dominated the cycling consciousness over the past few months, racking up wins at the biggest races of the year.
But look beyond the WorldTour powerhouses and you’ll find other, less-heralded names succeeding. One of these men is Lilian Calmejane, Direct Énergie’s second-year pro, a graduate from the team’s Vendée U Under-23 team.
The man from Albi in southern France has taken three stage-race victories already this year, more than any other pro rider apart from Valverde (who also has three).
First up came February’s Étoile de Besseges, the five-day race in the Occitanie region of south France, the nearest Calmejane has to a “home race.” There he won the third stage before holding off Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin in the final time trial to take the overall title by five seconds.
At the end of March it was time for the Settimana Coppi e Bartali, where he finished second on Stage 1 and third in the TTT before overhauling race leader Toms Skujins (Cannondale-Drapac) with a stage win on the final day. Two weeks later a stage win in the hills of the Circuit de la Sarthe saw him beat out Arthur Vichot (FDJ) and Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) for his third stage-race victory.
And if all that wasn’t enough, you can throw in the King of the Mountains competition at Paris-Nice, after an aggressive display, for good measure.
“There were few opportunities for aggressive riders to go for wins as they were all reserved for great champions,” he said at Paris-Nice. “I lost all hope for GC in the echelons on Stage 1 and so I had to find other ways to exist.”
Though the 24-year-old Calmejane turned pro relatively late, having studied business at university, he has already built a palmarès that most riders will never be able to compile. And that’s before we get to the small matter of his stage win at last year’s Vuelta a España, his first Grand Tour, on Stage 4 from Betanzos to San Andrés de Teixido.
The rolling stage featured an uphill finish on a second category climb, where Calmejane forged a lone path 9km from the line. Leaving behind a breakaway group that included far more experienced competitors such as Darwin Atapuma, Pierre Rolland, and Thomas De Gendt, the lead he managed to build never looked in real danger and he won by 15 seconds.
Catching up with Calmejane at Liège-Bastogne-Liège — “the classic that suits me best” — he said that his Vuelta success spurred him on during the off-season, which opened the door to the subsequent exceptional spring campaign.
“It was a good surprise, and at the beginning of winter I was thinking, ‘Yes, I did something great, but in the future can I do better?’” he says in almost-perfect English, a product of having spent summer 2012 on exchange in Nottingham. “And then I was very confident at the beginning of the season because I had no illness during the winter, and I trained well.
“So then I was very happy to confirm my feelings with good results this season. It’s quite a good thing,” he adds, with some understatement. “Because even if they’re not WorldTour races, it’s a good way to confirm the good season I had last year.”
Given his results thus far, Liège-Bastogne-Liège seems exactly the type of race at which Calmejane would excel. His 56th place saw him finish as the best Direct Énergie rider, but as he said later that day was more about learning than getting a big result.
“I’ve done a lot of race days since the beginning of the season [32, including Liège], so I’ve been a bit tired. I had a good beginning of the season and Liège was just to continue to learn.”
“I hope for more in the future and obviously to do my best results in the WorldTour, so it has been very positive,” he added.
And what kind of rider can we look forward to in the future? Over to Direct Énergie directeur sportif Jimmy Engoulvent, himself an ex-pro who ended his 14-year racing career at the team.
“In effect, [Calmejane] is becoming a rider very similar in style to Thomas Voeckler,” Engoulvent says. “He’s not a climber, not a sprinter, not a Grand Tour rider. But where he’s particularly effective is in the shorter hills around the 1-3km range. He’s growing into a really strong rider in those races.”
Engoulvent also added his own enthusiasm about Calmejane’s progression, in particular his style of riding. “He’s winning by attacking, not sprinting or riding like a Grand Tour rider.”
From the press, there have been some comparisons to Voeckler, and with his aptitude for hilly races and style of riding, you can see why. Indeed, Calmejane’s first two years in the pro peloton have coincided with Voeckler’s transition into a rider-mentor.
“It’s very important how he explains to the young riders. His philosophy has been to help young riders and to try and give his advice and experience,” says Calmejane. “I’ve learned a lot of things from him about all aspects of the life of a rider. Not just about the way to ride, but also the way of life and a lot of the right behaviours and attitude.”
Of course Voeckler flirted with Tour de France contention on two occasions — his 10-day stint in yellow back in 2004, and then his unlikely fourth overall in 2011. And as is inevitable with any promising young French talent, especially one who has tasted Grand Tour and stage-race success so early in his career, the obvious question crops up: Is Lilian Calmejane a future Tour contender?
“For the moment I have a good progression, but I don’t think I’m ready to race for a three-week general classification yet,” he says. “I’m not ready mentally or physically to do a result like that, so I prefer with my characteristics to go for stage wins. For the future I won’t fix any limits but now I’m between 68-71kg (150-156 pounds), so that’s quite heavy for a Grand Tour rider.”
But it is a possibility, he adds. “I have to do more Grand Tours, but at the moment I’m more focused on week-long stage races and learning. Then we will see my progression and how I improve.”
If it sounds like he has a mature head on his shoulders, it’s something that Engoulvent can back up, emphasising the focus on detail and the modern, technical side of training that perhaps isn’t usually associated with French cycling.
“He’s a really dedicated professional rider, and really into the technical side of things — his equipment, power, et cetera,” he says. “All of the focus on that side of things is making him into a really strong rider. It’s like he has the same career experience as a 30-, 35-year-old rider, though obviously he doesn’t have that.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by other team members, both directly and second-hand. And it will stand him in good stead for the future, both short- and long-term. With his prospects long-term already having been covered, what’s up next?
“Now I am having a little break and then it’s time to prepare as well as possible for the Tour de France,” he says. “Obviously that race is a big dream for every rider in their career.”
After his hectic spring, Calmejane has spent some time on holiday in Corsica, but it’s soon back to work and more stage races. First the Vuelta a Castilla y León in late May, then in June the Boucles de la Mayenne and Tour de Suisse before the Grande Boucle in July, where a stage win will surely be the goal for Direct Énergie’s next big thing.