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Tour de France Femmes

Tour de France Femmes: How FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope went from development team to world-beaters

The French squad will be looking to beat Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering with their trademark aggressive race tactics.

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FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope will start this weekend’s Tour de France Femmes with a realistic shot of riding away with the yellow jersey.

The French team comes to the race with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Marta Cavalli looking to push for glory over the coming week. They face a tough fight against the likes of Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) and Demi Vollering (SD Worx), but there’s a realistic shot of beating them.

It hasn’t always been like this for the French team. Founded back in 2006, FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope is one of the longest-standing active teams in the women’s peloton and for the first decade of its existence, it was run as a development team, sitting firmly in the teens of UCI’s world rankings.

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That all changed when the French lottery FDJ, which also sponsors the men’s WorldTour team, came on board in 2017. The seeds of a new ambition had been planted and it would grow much quicker when the team stepped up to become one of the first Women’s WorldTeams in 2020.

“For 10 years, we were a French team. Some talents would come and then leave, maybe a bit like Valcar now. Every time we were always 14th or 15th on the UCI ranking. When FDJ arrived in 2017, we arrived in a new dimension, but we were still far from the big teams,” team manager Stephen Delcourt told VeloNews.

“With the new UCI rules in 2020, we said maybe it’s time to improve and time to be one of the best. We had the partners to help because FDJ has the experience on the men’s side. They pushed a lot to start new partnerships and to push my material partners to make the conditions the same as the men.”

Pushing the team into the upper echelons of the sport has meant some wholesale changes within the team. It has been about far more than rider recruitment, though that has been important.

In order to create an environment to attract the world’s top riders, Delcourt decided that the team could no longer be dominated by French. It had to be more international and that meant changing the team language to English.

“It’s really difficult when for 10 or 12 years the first language is French. To be international when you only speak French is really hard. I told my sport directors, my mechanics, that it will be difficult to be international without English skills. I said that I would help them and together we can change the face of the team to be more international,” Delcourt said.

“Everything is in English, but it’s not always perfect. I know that some riders speak French to be closer to the staff. We also have some international staff with a UK mechanic, and a Welsh physio. I don’t push the riders to speak French, I prefer if it is a natural investment. When you look at someone like Simon Geschke in Cofidis, he speaks really well in French after only two years. I think that I could push more but it’s not a priority.”

Be like Grace

While there were plenty of changes behind the scenes, there have been just as many in front of the curtain, too. Delcourt cites the signing of Uttrup Ludwig in 2020 as a big catalyst for change within the team. It gave the squad a nucleus to form around that helped to push them forward.

Since then, the team has added some key signings such as Cavalli last season. However, for Delcourt, getting Grace Brown to join the team has been one of his most important moves in recent seasons. He’s hoping that her aggressive style of racing will help to take the Tour de France Femmes to the top riders.

“She has really changed the team,” he said. “Nobody could follow when Grace Brown attacked. Even this year at the Women’s Tour when she won the stage, [Elisa] Longo Borghini had to work a lot to come back on the wheel. Now, I am really happy to have a rider like this because she is a model for my riders and maybe she’s a model for all riders if they watch how she rides and how she attacks.

“I think the only chance to win and fight with Van Vleuten and SD Worx is to ride differently and not follow or wait for the attack. If we wait, it’s not good for our sport. Women’s cycling is really amazing. They attack a lot, they ride with a lot of intent. When we signed Grace Brown, she is really a model for Cecilie, Evita, and Marta, you can attack when you feel and not only when the sport director says to attack. When you feel you can attack.”

Racing on home soil

Despite the big changes within the team, Delcourt is adamant that it is still French at its core. Though it takes just two French riders to the race, it is likely to be a favorite among the home fans throughout the race.

Having seen the response to Paris-Roubaix since it was first held last October, Delcourt believes that the French public is taking to women’s cycling and he’s hopeful that the Tour de France Femmes will be well received. He’s also prepared for the extra pressure of being a home team at the Tour will bring.

“I think the first test was Paris-Roubaix. For me, French people in general in the street discovered women’s cycling at Paris-Roubaix with this really amazing race. When Lizzie Deignan won last year, women’s cycling won,” Delcourt said. “After that, for me, the bubble of the Tour de France arrived. All the media wanted to have an article about women’s cycling. When you are a French team, the best French team, when you have a lot of French talent in your country then it is normal that you have pressure.

“We have a big opportunity with the Tour de France. We know the rules with the men’s side, especially with the French teams, 70 percent of the visibility is at the Tour de France. We arrive at the same conclusion for the women’s Tour de France. For this reason, we have prepared a lot, we tried to build the best team.”

FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope does indeed come with a strong team that is spearheaded by Uttrup Ludwig and Cavalli. It has home hopes Evita Muzic and Marie Le Net with Brown and sprinter Vittoria Guazzini rounding out the roster.

“I think we have the same model as Jumbo-Visma. They had at the beginning two strong leaders with [Primož] Roglič and [Jonas] Vingegaard. Maybe only one leader can keep their chance to win and maybe we have the same scenario after the gravel stage,” Delcourt said. “Our ambition is to play for the win. Our first leader is Cecilie and our second is Marta. We will decide during the Tour de France if we have another scenario. We don’t know exactly the level of Cecilie. She was super good in the Giro but I feel she can be at the Tour de France at the same level as Marta. Our ambition is to have two riders at the top level.”