I pressed him on the subject of morale among the French riders which had, for a while, been patently on the slide. He rather dismissed the notion. They have a good level in France, a lot of wins since the beginning of the season.
“Is that evidence of a new charge of spirit?”
He answered before I could put it to him that the example of the older generation – him, Thomas Voeckler, even the late-blossoming Christophe Moreau – had much to do with an observable change.
His reply hinted that this wouldn’t be something he’d embrace readily: an innate modesty, I’d say.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think so. They got wins in Qatar, Mallorca…and I hope it will continue. When we come to the big classics, it’s a higher degree altogether. We had people like [Laurent] Jalabert and [Richard] Virenque at world class and we have to wait for others to emerge.”
There’s no question in my mind that he is happy with his role as elder professional, still ‘doing his thing’. Conscious, too, that this attitude will indeed stimulate others.
Solitary by disposition he may be, but he has that easy acceptability of all the demands of the job which shows in the deeply committed professional, a man of his trade, and a jusqu-auboutiste – an all-outer – which is his trademark.
When I ask him what his objective for the season is, I supply the word even before he responds: “Gagner?”
He smiles. The soigneur lifts his right leg to plant it on the table, Chavanel reaches for the pillow, pummels it briefly and reclines once more.
“Yes, it’s important to win, to go for victory. You can come in with the lead bunch but I don’t care about that.
“If I feel good – and that’s the main thing – I make a break and I look round to see if there’s anyone there or not. But I’m not one to think about advantage or disadvantage.
“Je roule. If I can win two or three races, on good courses, as I’ve done these last few years, that I would like very much.”
Example: Tour de France stage 2 Brussels to Spa. Only 11km from the start, Chavanel breaks clear and is joined by a number of others.
He attacks once more alone on the Col de Stockeu, some 33km from the finish, only Jürgen Roelandts stays with him until he, too, falls away – on the Col du Rosier, 20km on.
In the rain, on slick, wet roads, Chavanel presses on to win by nearly four minutes and, joy, to take the yellow jersey.
Interviewed after that victory, he said he didn’t have superior qualities in certain areas – he can’t sprint like Boonen, for instance, so he has to find other ways of winning “to make a splash.”
It’s true that he doesn’t win so many races as the great champions “but when I do win, it gets noticed.”
Paradoxically, he said, all the way through the escape he struggled to convince himself that it would come off, but he didn’t want to be disappointed if he failed once again and gradually he got stronger.
The simple analysis is ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’, but the deeper explication is of a psychological toughness that can weather the doubt, know it for what it is and stick to the base instinct: to attack, no matter what it costs and to hell with the risk.
It seems to me an admirable attitude, a coupling of self-knowledge and careless courage, even joie de vivre.
Extract from issue 25.