PONTE DI LEGNI, Italy (VN) — Larry Warbasse is an American, racing in the Giro d’Italia, but everything in his world right now is French.
Since his arrival to Ag2r-La Mondiale this season, the former U.S. national champion is diving headfirst with delight into the culture and idiosyncrasies of the long-running French team.
“This team is pure French,” Warbasse said. “It’s all French: in the emails, in the team meetings, on the radio, around the dinner table.”
The 28-year-old is well into the third week of the 2019 Giro, his first grand tour since the 2017 Vuelta a España.
Last year, there were no grand tours after his former team Aqua Blue Sport missed out on invitations to the Giro and the Vuelta. That snub, along with other back-room problems, led to the controversial mid-season closure of the Professional Continental team. Warbasse, along with his other 15 teammates, were on the street and left wondering about their professional futures.
Back to the old school
Warbasse was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to his contacts within the peloton, including friendship with French star Romain Bardet, a door opened at Ag2r-La Mondiale and he got a chance to return to the WorldTour.
A series of emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings quickly led to a deal for 2019. There was one caveat — the former IAM and BMC rider needed to learn French.
When he confirmed his deal with Ag2r-La Mondiale boss Vincent Lavenu, he signed up for an intense one-month French immersion course at one of the top French academies based in Nice. For a month, he was diving deep into French grammar, pronunciation, reading and writing. That investment paid off.
“It’s going really well,” he said. “At first it was tough, but now I am comfortable speaking French with my teammates. I am really integrating with my teammates.”
Warbasse’s cultural passage from the Anglo world into the French peloton harkens back to the glory days of bike racing.
Pretty much since its inception as a professional sport more than a century ago, French was the original language of the peloton. All communication inside races, between the racers and officials, be it on race radio, from the UCI down to race organizers, was in French.
Things started to slowly change a quarter of a century ago with the first wave of “foreign legion” riders that started to make inroads into the European peloton. Much like Warbasse is today, those early pros from Ireland, the United States, Canada and Australia all learned French and found their place.
One reason French fans so enthusiastically embraced Greg LeMond was not only did he have a French-sounding name, but also he quickly became fluent in French as part of his stints on the top French teams in the peloton.
By the turn of the century, however, English was slowly encroaching on the peloton. Race communiqués, race radio and even riders within the peloton started to speak English. More riders either spoke English as their first language or were fluent enough in it that it’s gradually become the unofficial language of the ever-more-international peloton.
As French as can be
Some riders today from English-speaking nations can race their entire careers without learning French, Italian or Spanish. Even some European teams have embraced English as their official team language.
Not the French teams. They proudly remain bastions of old-school cycling. Even more so when it comes to language. When you see the French teams like Groupama-FDJ or Cofidis, it’s French to the bone. Even at Ag2r-La Mondiale, which includes eight nationalities on their roster, French remains the primary language.
So how French are the French?
“All those stereotypes, they’re true,” Warbasse said with a laugh. “It’s not baguettes at the dinner table, but everything else is pretty much true.”
Warbasse is enjoying his ride so far and is embracing the challenge of learning a new language in what’s the latest chapter of his professional career.
“It’s a great new life skill and it’s something I can use after my career is over,” he said. “It’s always good to learn a new language.”
Warbasse is hoping to pay back his new teammates before this Giro is over. Just like he’s been doing so far this season, he’s been helping his team captains and sniffing out breakaway opportunities.
“Every day [in the final week] is going to be a good day for the breakaway,” Warbasse said. “Most of us will have the green light, and whoever is not in the break will help the GC guys.”
Warbasse is hoping to sneak into a breakaway to have a chance to show off the stars ‘n’ stripes emblazoned on the sleeve of his jersey from the 2017 national title.
“Some people say it looks more like the Cuban flag than the U.S.,” he said. “I think it looks nice.”
If Warbasse could pull of a big win during this Giro, just like he did in the 2017 Tour de Suisse, he’d gladly thank his teammates in French.