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Sylvain Chavanel went out in style.
No, the 39-year-old Frenchman didn’t win Stage 2 of the Tour de France Sunday; that honor went to world champion Peter Sagan, who dodged a late-race pileup and held off a surging Sonny Colbrelli.
But the Direct Energie rider, riding in his 18th and final Tour, spent much of the day alone, in front of his compatriot fans, punching out a big gear across the flat roads from Mouilleron-Saint-Germain to La Roche-sur-Yon before he was caught at 13km remaining. In total he rode for 132km on his own — a daylong goodbye to adoring French fans.
Chavanel didn’t set out to ride his 350th Tour de France stage alone; he initially escaped with Michael Gogl (Trek-Segafredo) and Dion Smith (Wanty-Groupe Gobert). But after the day’s sole KOM opportunity just 35km into the stage, the other two peeled off, relinquishing their 2:30 advantage over the peloton.
Riding for a team based in the Vendée region, Chavanel couldn’t resist the urge to go it alone, strutting his stuff on home roads, waving to fans and generally enjoying himself. He’d made history on Saturday; by rolling out from the start in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, he had surpassed Jens Voigt and Stuart O’Grady on the all-time list of Tour de France starts.
On Sunday — Direct Energie team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau’s birthday — he said goodbye to his fans, netting the combativity award in the process.
“My two breakaway companions sat up, but I’m not someone who gives up,” Chavanel said. “I felt good, but it was practically impossible with the last 10km, a wide road with unfavorable wind. I have a little reward with the combativity prize today on JR’s birthday. And in front of a Vendée crowd. It was a beautiful day and I really enjoyed myself.”
Given the record, and the day’s performance, it’s worth a look back at Chavanel’s long and storied career, which began in 2000 and includes three Tour de France stage wins, time spent in the leader’s jersey at the Tour and Vuelta a España, six national TT titles — earning him the nickname “The Machine” — and two overall wins at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde.
A rider for the classics and Le Tour
Sylvain Chavanel’s professional career began with three years spent riding under Bernaudeau at the second-division French squad Bonjour; that team took on the title sponsor of Brioche La Boulangère, where Chavanel rode in 2003-2004. His Tour debut was in 2001, and he hasn’t missed a Tour since. In fact, it’s been his focus — he’s ridden 23 Grand Tours over his career, and 18 times it was around the hexagon of France.
The Frenchman came close to taking his first Tour stage win in 2005, when he and American Chris Horner rode into the final kilometre in Montpellier ahead of the bunch, but were caught in the final 100 metres after a tactical game ended poorly for both men.
Chavanel rode with Cofidis for four years, from 2005 through 2008. His breakthrough season came in 2008, when he won Dwars door Vlaanderen, across the Flemish cobblestones, as well as Brabantse Pijl, in the hilly Ardennes — results that would ultimately land him at the Belgian Quick-Step classics squad the following year.
His first Tour stage win also came in 2008, one day before the final time trial that clinched the overall win for Carlos Sastre. On the transition stage from Roanne to Montluçon, Chavanel out-sprinted compatriot and breakaway companion Jérémy Roy for the victory. (As it would turn out, Cofidis has not won a stage at the Tour since.)
A few months later, Chavanel would wear the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta a España for one day after finishing second to American Levi Leipheimer in the Stage 4 time trial.
A five-year stint with the Belgian Quick-Step team in 2009 saw Chavanel achieve the best results of his career, both at the spring classics and the Tour.
Chavanel won two stages at the 2010 Tour, twice claiming the maillot jaune — though not under ideal circumstances. He soloed to victory on Stage 2 into Spa on a rainy day where a massive crash on the slick descent of the Col du Stockeu saw around 60 riders hit the deck, prompting an impromptu neutralization, initiated by Fabian Cancellara after his team leader Andy Schleck had hit the deck.
Chavanel had ridden in the breakaway with seven other riders before he soloed away to take the stage; he viewed himself as immune from the controversy behind him. The result meant all the more to him given that he’d crashed and fractured his skull two months earlier, at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, requiring eight weeks off the bike.
“This is the happiest day of my career,” Chavanel said at the time, beaming in yellow. “It’s great today because I have been unlucky so many times, always attacking, but the race catches me 1-2km from the line. Today the bunch decided not to chase me, but that’s life.”
His time in yellow would last only one day — he punctured twice the following day across the cobblestones — but later that week Chavanel won again, this time without controversy. He bridged the gap to an early breakaway and then rode alone to victory on a hot day through the Jura to Station des Rousses on Stage 7.
It was a second solo stage win in the first week of the race, becoming the first Frenchman to win two stages in a single Tour since Laurent Jalabert in 2001. As it had in Spa, the stage win brought another day in yellow. And as had happened previously, the following day Chavanel would again cede the GC leadership.
As a classics rider, Chavanel reached his zenith at the 2011 Ronde van Vlaanderen, where — riding as a Quick-Step teammate of Tom Boonen — he followed Fabian Cancellara’s early attack, sat on, and then followed late moves to finish second behind Belgian Nick Nuyens.
Later that year, Chavanel wore the red leader’s jersey at the Vuelta a España for four days during the first week of the race.
In 2012 and 2013, Chavanel pulled out the overall victory at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde — ahead of Lieuwe Westra in 2012 and Alexander Kristoff in 2013 — by winning the final time trial both years.
Chavanel’s career has waned over the past five years, with most results coming in smaller French races, rather than WorldTour events. His last major result was victory at the 2014 GP West France-Plouay, a one-day WorldTour race; his last win came on Stage 4 of the 2017 4 Days of Dunkerque.
It’s also worth pointing out that over Chavanel’s 19-year career, which spanned across one of the darkest periods in professional cycling’s history, he was never implicated in any doping scandals, nor allegations. When a UCI document leaked in 2011 ranking Tour de France starters on an “index of suspicion” ranging from zero (low probability) through 10 (high probability), Chavanel was ranked a one. While far from conclusive, it’s a noteworthy data point.
After two seasons at IAM Cycling, in 2016 he returned where he began, riding under Bernaudeau, this time with Direct Energie. The French veteran made the decision last year that 2018 would be his final season — and his final Tour de France.
On Sunday, Chavanel was once again alone at the front of le Tour, almost certainly for the last time.
“I wanted to escape today for Bernaudeau’s birthday,” he said. “I had a lot of fun because there were really a lot of spectators at the side of the road. I wanted the polka-dot jersey but I knew I was not the fastest of the breakaway. Having 18 Tour de France on the clock, it’s incredible, but I took as much pleasure today as on the first.”
Of his previous 17 Tour starts, Chavanel finished 15 times. A finish this year would tie Joop Zoetemelk’s all-time record of 16, and if he makes through stage 18 he will hold the record of most Tour stages completed, surpassing Zoetemelk’s record of 365.
But don’t expect to see Chavanel back in 2019, at age 40, to break the record of Tour finishes.
“If I ride the 2018 Tour, it’ll be 18th and my last,” Chavanel told his local newspaper Centre Presse in November. “Riding 17 is exceptional. If I do an 18th Tour I’d make history. I could continue racing even into 2019, but I’m not interested in riding a 20th or 21st Tour. I know how hard the Tour de France is, and the sacrifices that are needed to ride it.”
And that’s what made Sunday’s solo effort so special. A French star, alone at the front of the Tour de France, riding through the region his French team calls home, on his team manager’s birthday, in his final Tour de France.
The French have a word for riding with style and confidence – panache — and it’s fully applicable here.
Chapeau, Chavanel, et au revoir.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers will be writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.