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Jérôme Coppel taking spotlight in stride

Jérôme Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) will start this year’s Tour de France with the almost unfair burden of being the next “great French hope.”

Coppel drinks some American champagne after the hard TT effort at Murcia this month. | Andrew Hood photo

Over the past decade, one young rising French star after another has been saddled with the weight of trying to become the first national rider to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985. In almost every case, those expectations were unfulfilled and France has had to endure yet another étranger winning their beloved Tour.

Some think that the story might have a different ending with Coppel, a promising 24-year-old from the modest Saur-Sojasun team with very big hopes.

Boof! Everyone says that I will win the Tour de France, but I don’t worry about that,” Coppel told VeloNews at the Vuelta a Murcia earlier this month. “The most important thing is to arrive at the Tour in good form. For me, an honest goal is to aim for the top-10. If I can achieve that, then that will be something to build on for the future.”

Talk of a top-10 finish is hardly something to get excited about, but if you’re a French fan hungry for a new champion, anywhere near the single digits on the final GC is cause for celebration.

Recent results have people taking notice even beyond France. Coppel started the 2011 campaign with a string of strong performances, including fifth at the Étoile de Bessèges, fourth at the Ruta del Sol and second at the Vuelta a Murcia in early March, where he was only beaten back by Alberto Contador.

“This is a good sign, I am satisfied,” Coppel said of his Murcia ride. “It’s a high-caliber field; Contador, Menchov, Duarte, these are all riders who can win big races. It’s good company to be in.”

Coppel seems to have the right mix of character, body size (5-foot-8 at 143lbs) and skills to have a real shot at developing into a GC contender. His consistency in the both the time trials and climbs give him the foundation for success.

Coppel’s star is already on the rise within France. It’s thanks to Coppel’s potential that helped Saur-Sojasun’s gain an invitation to this year’s Tour. He and compatriot Romain Sicard were recently the focus of a four-page spread in L’Equipe‘s weekly magazine, with the headline: Bientôt un crack française? (Soon a French champ?)

“To win the Tour? That’s too early to say,” said Saur-Sojasun sport director Stephen Heulot. “But I have rarely seen such talent associated with someone so serious.”

Coppel is a former cross-country skier, raised in Annemasse, high in the French Alps. Once he started racing with the local club, he quickly won French junior and U23 national time trial championships and a pair of U23 bronze world TT medals before turning pro with FDJ in 2008. His Tour debut the next year ended in stage 12.

Unhappy at FDJ, he took the chance to join Saur-Sojasun last year. While he didn’t go to the Tour, he won five races, notched fith at the Dauphiné and ninth at Paris-Nice.

“Last year, we didn’t get invited to the Tour, but that was OK. I was able to go to other races and learn to race as a team leader without heavy pressure,” Coppel continued. “This year, we will go to the Tour with a good team. The first objective is to try to win a stage, maybe with another one of our riders. With luck, maybe I can get a top-10.”

Coppel will have more chances to measure his progress, racing again against Contador at the Vuelta a Castilla y León (April 13-17) before the Ardennes classics. In June, he’ll race again on “home roads” at the Dauphiné before a run at the Tour. All of France will be watching and hoping.

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