Less is more for Arnaud Démare and his Groupama-FDJ sprint train.
After a 2021 campaign that saw the Frenchman struggle to hit the big time, leaving the Tour de France in the first week after missing the time cut and failing to win a sprint at the subsequent Vuelta a España, Démare is the man to beat at the Giro d’Italia.
He’s already won two stages, the only rider to double up so far, and he is the favorite to take another and extend his lead in the points classification in Wednesday’s sprint finish to Reggio Emilia.
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Démare’s run of form is similar to the one he experienced at the 2020 Giro, when he stormed to four stage wins and took home the ciclamino jersey. It is this performance that has spurred the Groupama-FDJ sprint squad to rediscover its winning form and a trimmed-down calendar that has given the riders the opportunity to really go for it.
“The starting point was the 2020 Giro, which was in October, and if you think now it’s not even two years ago,” Démare’s final leadout man Jacopo Guarnieri told VeloNews. “We just said ‘it’s only been 14 months since you were last winning, let’s get back to that.’
“We had time to prepare ourselves really well, we decided in 2022 not to waste energy in smaller races so that we could prepare ourselves properly for the Giro because we had one month without anything in April. We weren’t all together, we were in different spots around Europe to prepare for the Giro but, so far, it’s going really well.”
Ignatas Konovalovas was the first of Démare’s leadout train to depart from the Tour de France last year when he was caught up in a high-speed crash and suffered a brain hemorrhage. It was part of a string of misfortune for the team in 2021.
He, like many riders, suffered from illness at the start of the season and he believes that the change in build-up ahead of the Giro d’Italia has played a big part in getting the whole squad to the race in peak condition.
“Coming into this race we had a really proper preparation, with the whole team, especially Arnaud’s train. We didn’t have any problems, no COVID or sickness because at the beginning of this year we were all sick at some moment,” Konovalovas told VeloNews.
“Arnaud was the only guy that wasn’t sick. It meant the preparation was destroyed and at every race we were chasing the form. We started to feel better but then got bronchitis at Tirreno-Adriatico, which knocked us back.”
Keeping the confidence
Démare only raced one day in April at the one-day Route Adélie de Vitré and, instead, headed off to altitude in Tenerife with another of his leadout men, Ramon Sinkledam. While some of his leadout riders did race in April, they all had nearly four weeks away from racing to get ready for the Giro d’Italia start in Budapest on May 6.
Unusually for Démare, he started the Italian grand tour without a single win with his best result a second place on stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico. It is only the third time in his career that he has had to wait until May to find his first victory of the season.
Despite the slow start to the season, Guarnieri says that the team believed in Démare coming into the race.
“We were already confident, but we didn’t have a win so from the outside it looked like we were struggling but mentally we were strong, and it was just about getting things to go in the right place,” Guarnieri said.
“We did it perfectly in two stages in the Giro, and it could have been a victory also in the first [sprint on stage 3] but he maybe started his spring a little bit too early from behind Mark Cavendish instead of waiting but, so far, we can be really happy, and the confidence and the morale are really high.”
Cycling is a fickle sport, and it doesn’t take long for a rider that is dominating to suffer a win drought. The longer the drought, the more questions that arise about the form, but fortunes can always turn around with time.
Perhaps the biggest component in Démare’s return to the winner’s circle is that he and his team never gave up.
“You always have to step back up on your feet. It’s sport; sometimes it’s up and down and sometimes the downs are really low, but when you touch the bottom you only have more ground to jump back up,” Guarnieri told VeloNews.