Don’t look now but there is a new kid on the block in French cycling—the Arkea-Samsic team. For years, the modest UCI Pro Continental team scraped its way into the Tour de France with wildcard invitations, simply happy to participate. But now, the squad is one of the hottest teams in the world, boasting no less than six victories so far this season.
Much of the credit must go to the team’s aggressive recruiting for 2020 which saw the arrival of international star Nairo Quintana, as well as veteran French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni. And together, the two have taken the team into an upward trajectory, one in which success seemingly breeds success.
The advantage of hiring a sprinter is that they can facilitate early-season success and hence assure high morale on the team from the opening races around the world—races that often have an abundance of sprint stages. In Bouhanni’s case, his arrival from the French Cofidis team was anything but a guarantee of success. After all, he was coming off a season void of victory.
But the move to Arkea visibly brought new confidence, and Bouhanni started off strongly with victory on stage four in the Tour of Saudi Arabia as well as the opening stage of the Tour de la Provence.
“I am really riding with confidence and that comes from Arkea-Samsic, the staff and the riders,” Bouhanni said after his stage win in Provence. “That’s really motivating and now my goal is simply to win as much as possible with the team.”
But while Bouhanni’s success gave the team a positive start to 2020, the arrival of Nairo Quintana has done nothing less than rocket the team into a different orbit.
While certain skeptics feared that Quintana’s move to Arkea—still a UCI Pro Continental team—from the powerful Movistar team was a clear step down, and one that would fail to inspire the Columbian to race to his fullest, he instantly proved them wrong by winning the first two races he entered, the Tour de la Provence and the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var this past weekend. And he has raced both in stunning style.
In Provence, Quintana not only won the race, but he did so by establishing a new record on the legendary Mont Ventoux. Of course the Ventoux ascent of the Tour de Provence finished at the Chalet Reynard intersection rather than at the summit, six kilometers further up the road. But his time was faster than the time split a certain Marco Pantani recorded in the 1994 Tour de France.
And he won the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var in similar smashing style, with victory on stage two on Col d’Eze.
“Quintana was just untouchable,” said French rider Romain Bardet, who finished second to Quintana at the three-day race, just in front of Australian Richie Porte. “Quintana was imperial,” said another French standout, Thibaut Pinot, who admittedly could not compete at Quintana’s level so far this year.
The fact that Quintana is riding above his competition in these early season races is understandable. After all, he came into the season fresh off of a winter of training in the high altitude of his native Colombia. But his domination in these early-season French races have taken his new French team to unprecedented—although not completely unexpected—heights.
“A wonderful dynamic has installed itself within the team since the beginning of the season,” says team manager Emmanuel Hubert. “And the whole group has entered into this dimension.”
In all fairness, Hubert has recruited aggressively for several years, but never with such success. He hired punchy Belgian sprinter Gianni Meersman for the 2017 season from the Omega Pharma–Quickstep team. But while Meersman could have won Tour de France stages for them, a heart condition forced him to retire before the season started. Hubert continued to recruit aggressively the following year, luring Frenchman Warren Barguil away from the Dutch Sunweb team after he won two stages in the Tour de France, as well as the polka-dot (KOM) jersey. But Barguil struggled with the pressures of leading a French team, and while he won the French national road title in 2019, he has yet to race at the same level as in 2017. But, the Frenchman seems to revel in his new collaboration with Quintana, as it has given him new focus in the early season.
“Nairo and I have worked together for a long time,” adds Winner Ancona, countryman and longtime teammate to Quintana. “But we are quickly learning to work well with everyone on the Arkea team. Riding for Nairo is always a pleasure, but when he wins like he did on the Ventoux, the joy for us teammates is even greater.”
Indeed, Quintana appears quite at home on his new French team. And he clearly is benefiting from the fact that at Arkea, he is the undisputed leader. “I was his his DS at Movistar for two years so I know Nairo well,” says Yvon Ledanois, the current Arkea Director Sportif . “I think it was important for him to change teams. He has full freedom here, something he never had before. In some ways [this] Nairo is the same as the Nairo I knew when I started out. But he is not the same. He has won the Giro. He has won the Vuelta. He has big goals. And I have no doubt he will have big success with Arkea-Samsic. I really have no doubt.”
Certainly, for the moment, there is no doubt. Quintana has taken his French team to previously unforeseen heights, and they will enter the upcoming Paris-Nice race with unprecedented confidence as they try to take their early-season success to the next level on the international calendar.
But Hubert, while overjoyed with the team’s newfound success, is committed to maintaining it. “The early season has been great, but we have to keep our feet on the ground. We have to continue to work to stay at this level.”