Among Cannondale’s interesting off-season moves, Pierre Rolland was one of the most surprising. Sure, the French veteran had won a stage at Alpe d’Huez and twice finished in the top 10 at the Tour de France, but at 29, wasn’t the sun setting on his future?
No way, said Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters, who said in January he marveled at Rolland’s untapped potential, adding, “he was training like it was 1975.”
Those comments raised some eyebrows in France, and means Rolland and Cannondale will have some added pressure next week when he leads the team’s efforts at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“The big objective for me and the team is the Tour de France,” Rolland said. “I am thinking about the Tour, but we hope to have results earlier.”
After a discreet spring, with no wins, and a season-best 15th overall at the Tour de Romandie in 27 days of racing, Rolland might be getting some heat in the French media, but he wants to put it together on the road. It won’t be easy, with the Dauphiné attracting a top field, including two-time winner Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), as well as Fabio Aru (Astana), racing in the French Alps in advance of his Tour debut next month. Rolland leads a strong Cannondale team, with Alex Howes and talented climber André Cardoso, but 2014 Dauphiné winner Andrew Talansky will race the Tour de Suisse instead.
“There is a different kind of pressure, because I am on a new team, and I want to do something nice,” Rolland said. “The pressure comes from me.”
Sensing the team needed some added depth, Cannondale tapped Rolland to slot into a leadership role for the Tour de France this summer alongside Talansky. Cannondale sport director Bingen Fernández said having two leaders is better than one, especially against such strong teams as Sky and Tinkoff.
“It’s better to have more options,” Fernández said. “Talansky has demonstrated that he’s a great rider, and Rolland comes to make the team even stronger. With more riders we have up at the front of the race like the Tour, the better it is for us, tactically and strategically.”
But is it true that the French teams were slow to catch up to new training techniques in the peloton? Rolland said yes.
When VeloNews sat down with Rolland, he was attending his first-ever team-organized altitude camp at Tenerife, something he said the French teams never did. In 2015, he organized his own camp, spending three weeks at the summit of La Toussuire high in the French Alps on his own.
“The French were late to think about the nutrition, the new style of training, the power data,” Rolland said. “Many others had these new ideas, and the French were slow to accept these. French cycling was trying to catch up, but now you see a new generation coming up, with [Romain] Bardet and [Thibaut] Pinot.”
After riding his entire career 10-year career on French teams (Credit Agricole, Bouygues Telecom, and Europcar), Rolland knew it was time for a change if he was going to keep up with the advances in the sport.
“I wanted to make a big change, to open my mind for a new approach for my training and racing mentality,” Rolland said. “I hit the start button again, because I wanted a new environment. It was the right time for change.”
Rolland’s move to the U.S.-registered Cannondale team reveals just how Anglicized the peloton’s become. A generation ago, French was the universal language of the peloton. Rolland has been sharing rooms with the likes of Joe Dombrowski and Jack Bauer, and is quickly picking up English. Before linking up with the team last fall, he could barely speak two words of English.
“I feel good on this team, and I am learning English,” Rolland said. “The sport directors speak French with me, and many of the words of the peloton are still French, but it’s nice to learn a new language.”
What doesn’t change is the pressure of the Tour. A French rider hasn’t won the Tour since 1985, with Bernard Hinault, but two French riders — Jean-Christophe Péraud and Pinot — hit the podium in 2014. Rolland said the allure of the Tour is what keeps him going.
“I love it, and I hate it. The Tour de France is the most beautiful and biggest race, and if you win, it’s great, but if you are second, it is such a horrible feeling.”
Rolland is hoping to avoid bad luck that’s haunted him in the past. Last year, he lost eight minutes in the opening flat stages, and then steadily fought his way back to finish 10th overall, including second in stage 18.
“Last year, I had a crash in the first week, and you lose six months of work, and it is so unfair,” he said. “In another year, I lost 12 minutes in the first week, and finished 14 minutes behind the winner, so that means I only lost two minutes in the key stages. I hope that can change.”
Rolland’s big shot of fame came with his Alpe d’Huez victory in 2011 (when he also won the best young rider’s jersey), but he also took pride in wearing the best climber’s jersey until the final mountain stage in 2013 (when Nairo Quintana snatched at Semnoz). His personal highlight was winning a stage at La Toussuire in 2012.
“That win was a confirmation to prove to everyone that I could do it,” he said. “ I am 29, and I’ve done seven Tours, and I know the pressure of the race. I know what I have to do, and I know how the race develops, and I want to make the results for myself. I don’t worry about the journalists or what the people say.”
And what about winning the Tour? Rolland’s eyes light up, but he’s also realistic.
“Sure, I would love to be the next French winner!” Rolland said. “I am working for the Tour a long time, but I think winning the Tour for me is a dream. I don’t know if it’s possible or not.”