No Ryder Hesjedal. No Svein Tuft. This year’s Tour de France peloton features only one Canadian, Antoine Duchesne of Direct Energie.
The 24-year-old Québécois is doing his best to represent during his Tour debut, riding in support of up-and-coming French sprinter Bryan Coquard. And he hasn’t stopped smiling since it started.
“It’s nice to be there to show our flag,” Duchesne said before Wednesday’s start. “I have seen a few Canadian and Quebec flags on the road, and that’s always nice to see. It would have been nice to have some other Canadians, but I am glad to be here.”
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The former under-23 Canadian national champion is part of a new wave of Canadian riders hitting the European peloton. He turned pro with Europcar in 2014, rode his first grand tour at the Vuelta a España last year, and got the nod for his Tour debut following a strong spring that included 58th at Paris-Roubaix and the best climber’s jersey at Paris-Nice.
Born in 1991, he was too young to see Canadian trailblazer Steve Bauer, who wore the yellow jersey and won an Olympic medal during his racing career in the mid-1980s and 1990s.
“Bauer is a little too early for me. I wasn’t even born yet!” Duchesne said with a laugh. “The first bike race I even saw on TV was in 2005. When I started riding, I didn’t have an exact memory of the Tour. It wasn’t even a dream to come to the Tour. It was so far away. I wasn’t that good when I was young. I only started to dream about when I was pro for three years.”
Like many Tour rookies, he’s been immediately impressed with the intensity and speed of the Tour.
“Everyone here is 100 percent. No one is racing the Tour to prepare for another race,” he said. “It’s already nervous at 50km to go, and I don’t even want to talk about the climbs!”
Direct Energie brought a team built around Coquard, with a few riders for breakaways. As one of the Tour’s wildcard invitational teams, Duchesne said the team has had to fight to earn its space in the sprints against the established sprint teams.
“Against the more experienced guys, we still do some mistakes, but we’ve shown we have the power to be up there,” Duchesne said. “More and more, the other teams are giving us space. The first stage was a little harder, but we showed we could do it. We’ve come close to the win, so we are fighting to keep the good position.”
He and French veteran Sylvain Chavanel keep the pace high in the closing 10km to keep their budding train in good position. From there, Yohann Gene and Fabrice Jeandesboz work to drop Coquard on a good wheel. They almost got it right, with Coquard losing stage 4 in a photo finish to Marcel Kittel (Etixx – Quick-Step).
“We haven’t got a win, but we’ve been working for it. We are not afraid to work for the sprints,” Duchesne said. “We are a young train for Bryan, and Bryan is young, too, but he’s holding on pretty well. Maybe we’ll get that win today.”