ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (VN) — After Larry Warbasse inked a contract with French team Ag2r La Mondiale this past fall, he discovered a glaring skill was missing from his pro cycling resume.
Sure, Warbasse could climb, descend, ride a time trial, and attack. But his French language skills were tres terrible.
“I’d say if I were in a team meeting, I could understand about 15-20 percent of what was being said,” Warbasse told VeloNews. “I feel kind of embarrassed about it because I live in southern France.”
The lack of French posed a challenge for Warbasse, 28. Ag2r boasts a decidedly French flair: 21 of the 29 riders come from France, and the team’s management is comprised of French ex-pros.
Originally from Michigan, Warbasse bases himself just outside of Nice, on the French riviera, and his professional career has included stints with Swiss and Irish teams. After his initial meetings with his new Ag2r La Mondiale teammates, Warbasse decided it was time to learn French.
In October he signed up for a monthlong French language immersion program at the Institut de Français, a French language school located just outside of Nice. From 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day, Warbasse was indeed immersed in French at the school. In fact, speaking any outside language was forbidden, he said.
“You would pay a 2 euro fine if you spoke any language other than French,” Warbasse said. “And you weren’t allowed to even look at your phone because they didn’t want you to read any text that wasn’t in French.”
Warbasse’s days began with an hour and a half classroom exercise, followed by several hours in a language lab, where he donned headphones and audibly repeated the French phrases beamed into his ears. At lunch, he ate with his French professors, who attempted to have casual conversations with the students.
The monthlong training boosted Warbasse’s French.
“Now, I feel like I [understand] 80 percent of what is being said,” Warbasse said. “It’s made my whole life a lot easier because I can now have conversations with people.”
Indeed, Warbasse’s new teammate Tony Gallopin confirmed that the American’s French language skills are now très bon. Gallopin said Ag2r riders were impressed when Warbasse showed up at the team’s November training camp and was able to communicate.
“Everybody was surprised,” Gallopin said. “Now, every time I see him he is better and better. Sometimes we speak a little English but he can now speak [French] with everybody on the team.”
Whether Warbasse’s newfound French helps him thrive at the WorldTour level is yet to be seen. This year Warbasse will ride a selection of stage races and single-day events that culminates with a Giro d’Italia start in May and a Tour de Suisse start in June.
After this week’s UAE Tour, Warbasse will compete at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo before the Giro, where he will be an important support rider for GC rider Tony Gallopin and stage hunter Alexis Vuillermoz.
With his French skills strengthened, Warbasse believes he’s ready to thrive on the French team. Of course, there’s also the challenge of racing bikes. At the team’s Spanish training camp in December, Warbasse underwent an immersion in AG2R’s intense training style.
“We train really hard on this team. That was a big surprise — we were smashing it,” Warbasse said. “The guys love to push each other, which is really cool. The motto here is toujours plus.”
“That means, ‘always more,'” Warbasse added.