"As is the case with all the French teams, the Giro d’Italia can be taken with a proverbial Gallic shrug: hey, it’s a nice warm-up act for their One and Only in July, but they aren’t going to bust a gut getting results"...
Bolstered by an influx of fresh, French-based new faces this winter, Francaise des Jeux can (almost) look forward to testing some of their new recruits at the always-onerous Giro d’Italia. As is the case with all the French teams, the Giro d’Italia can be taken with a proverbial Gallic shrug: hey, it’s a nice warm-up act for their One and Only in July, but they aren’t going to bust a gut getting results. After all, they have enjoyed a good spring on the back of Philippe Gilbert's impressive riding. Nonetheless, the team will be hoping one or two riders can come up trumps with a few surprises. On paper, they have one of the weakest teams here: a glance at their predominantly-youthful roster reveals that the only established-ish name is that of Lilian Jegou. Moreover, of the nine racers, four are Grand Tour virgins. Employing a similar, youth-over-experience tactic last year saw them gored, with no top-five results to speak of. Still, this time round, the “men in white” will be hoping to stand out for other reasons than their blinding white kit.
Francaise des Jeux for the 2008 Giro d'Italia
Mikael Cherel (Fra)
Tim Gudsell (NZl)
Yauheni Hutarovich (Blr)
Lilian Jégou (Fra)
Yoann Le Boulanger (Fra)
Guillaume Levarlet (Fra)
Jérémy Roy (Fra)
Jelle Vanendert (Bel)
Jussi Veikannen (Fin)
One man who could spring a surprise or two in the bunch sprints is Belarussian Yauheni Hutarovich. Poached from Roubaix Lille Metropole, where he was recommended to them by the great Cyrille Guimard after some good results on the French domestic scene, the young gun will be looking to raise some eyebrows in his first Grand Tour. Bunch sprinting in the Grand Tours may be a different animal to other events, but Francaise des Jeux will be hoping to bank on the punchy Hutarovich, usually employed as a leadout man for Sebastien Chavanel, for a couple of top-tens against the likes of McEwen, Cavendish and company.
Despite the damning handicap of being given a girl's name, Lilian Jégou is (in all seriousness) the proven performer in this squad's Giro roster, thanks largely to plenty of top-10 finish in Coupe de France races in the last four years. After having an off-season last year, the dependable Jégou looks to be back to his best. Though he has a lusty finishing kick, it is by no means good enough to contend with the top bunch sprinters, so like the rest of the team, the thirty-two year old will be jumping onto the coat-tails of escapees. Jégou will be hoping for the kind of result compatriot Christophe Le Mevel enjoyed in '05, attacking late and opportunistically from the key break to win in Varazze in a third-week transition stage.
The team's other old stager is Yoann Le Boulanger. Useful in any French team - and he's been at Cofidis, RAGT Semences and Bouygues Telecom before coming here - for his climbing ability, it's a little-known fact that Le Boulanger was the second-best French finisher in last year’s race with thirtieth place overall. He also enjoyed a very aggressive Giro, coming sixth in the Mountains classification. Much of the same is expected of the experienced Breton this time round.
A Francaise des Jeux rider on the attack.
Photo © Fotoreporter Sirotti
Still, another man who could perform decently in the general classification is Jussi Veikkanen. The Finn has decent proficiency in the mountains without being able to finish with the top guns: he was 44th in last year’s race. A top-thirty finish this year would be a satisfying progression, though the team will also be hoping Veikkanen can get in an escape or two. His results this year have been encouraging without being groundbreaking, finishing just adrift from the star riders: he was fourteenth at the Criterium International, seventeenth at Tirreno-Adriatico and twenty-second in the Tour of Romandie.
Some focus will also be directed on how Jelle Vanendert performs in his first Grand Tour. The Belgian courted a lot of big-name attention last year while at Chocolade Jacques, where he finished in the top 25 of two Ardennes Classics as a mere neo-professional. Despite failing to recreate those kind of results this year, Vanendert is good on the hills, and it will be interesting to see if he makes the course in one of cycling’s toughest races. Not a confirmed start, Vanendert's countryman Tom Stubbe could take his place.
It is insane that Jérémy Roy been a professional for five years – to me, he is one of those riders with the Peter Pan-esque ability of seeming to be fresh off the Elite-2 conveyor belt. Perhaps the fact that Roy has been just on the cusp of a good results, thus effectively just off the radar, contributes to my blinkered view (third in a 2007 Vuelta stage, fourth in the Tour of Picardy, fourth GP de Plumelec). After three years of riding solidly in the Vuelta, doing the Giro is a small and natural progression for Roy. Still only 24 years old, he at least has plenty of time to gain more experience and bag that elusive big result.
Meanwhile, his New Zealander teammate Timothy Gudsell will be looking to fare better than 2007, where he only finished six stages before abandoning on the road to Scarperia.
Neo-professional Mikael Cherel and former Auber 93 man Guillaume Levarlet are both ProTour greenhorns. Cherel enjoyed a brave lone breakaway in an early stage of Paris-Nice; Levarlet, meanwhile, is a handy climber, having finished sixth in last year’s Tour de l’Avenir and seventh at the Tour de l’Ain. Neither are going to set the race alight, but this should provide both of them with good foundations to build upon in the future.
In Recent Years…
Francaise des Jeux have had some easily-forgettable strong performances in recent editions of the Giro d’Italia – Sandy Casar was sixth overall in 2006. The last man to win a stage was Brad McGee, taking the 2004 prologue and coming second in three other stages on the way to a surprise eighth place finish in Milano. To their credit, Francaise des Jeux were one of the only French squads to race the Giro before it became cool (and/or compulsory under ProTour rules) to do so. Little has changed since the pre-ProTour days in that it is still, unsurprisingly, both a target and a happy hunting ground for Italian riders and squads.
How will they fare without Spring star Philippe Gilbert?
Photo © Yoni Peeters
To Sum Up…
Bettering 2007 must be at the top of the list, so a top-five stage finish is a must; as already mentioned, they are in danger of having an anonymous Giro d'Italia. Otherwise, they will have to hope one of their riders makes it into a break that sticks to the finish. Being sponsored by the French Lottery, Lady Luck may be smiling on them...