Cyrille Guimard: When Machiavelli meets Napoleon

For years, even decades, Frenchman Cyrille Guimard ruled the sport. As a rider he upstaged Eddy Merckx in the 1972 Tour de France, wearing both the yellow and green jersey at different moments in the race. And as a directeur sportif he guided no less than three men—Lucien Van Impe,…

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For years, even decades, Frenchman Cyrille Guimard ruled the sport. As a rider he upstaged Eddy Merckx in the 1972 Tour de France, wearing both the yellow and green jersey at different moments in the race. And as a directeur sportif he guided no less than three men—Lucien Van Impe, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon—to seven Tour victories in the 1970s and ’80s. Any rider who raced under his direction says to this day that Guimard was the greatest director they have ever knew. “Behind the wheel he was just light years ahead of everybody else,” says David Millar, a Guimard recruit on the Cofidis team in the late 1990s. And three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond, one of Guimard’s prize recruits, says, “He was absolutely the best director I ever had! I was so fortunate to start my career with him.”

Interview: James Startt
Images: James Startt & Yuzuru Sunada

Opening image: Tour de France, 2015. Image: James Startt.

Guimard’s race tactics could be, at times, near Machiavellian in their calculation, while he dominated the sport in ways that have been compared to Napoleon. Simply put, he was a giant of his time. Now 70 years old, Guimard watches the sport from afar. But, as a frequent radio and television commentator, his race analyses remain witty and pertinent.

Cyrille, although you built your reputation as a great team director, you were also a darn good rider, with your most memorable ride coming in the 1972 Tour de France, when you rivaled Eddy Merckx. You were almost certain to win the green jersey if you were not forced to pull out due to a knee injury. Did you really think that you had a chance of beating Eddy going into that Tour? Well, I was in second place when I had to drop out. But don’t forget, I had already finished seventh the year before, in 1971. I got off to a bad start that year and lost nearly 19 minutes in the opening stages, because my team leader that year, Raymond Poulidor, got caught behind a big split; otherwise I would have been on the podium. After that performance, I definitely went into the ’72 Tour with at least a podium in mind. But if you don’t go into a race with the desire of winning, why start?

Of course, beating Eddy was never easy. Between 1969 and 1974 or 1975, Merckx was untouchable. But there are always the circumstances of a particular race that can allow for surprises. So I went into the 1972 Tour focused on a podium finish, and perhaps with some luck, a chance to win. But, physically speaking, Eddy was unbeatable.

You were forced to cut your own career short due to nagging knee injuries and you took over the Gitane team in 1976. You had immediate success, guiding Van Impe to victory in your first year, followed by Tour victories for Hinault and Fignon. In addition, you signed an up-and-coming American amateur, Greg LeMond. You won seven Tours and the reputation as the world’s best director, especially when it came to strategy. How did you master the science of racing as we call it? Or is it just intuitive? I think it goes back to my days as a cadet [the under-18 category in France]. Every night after a race, I went back over and over the race in my head. Why did this break get away and not that one? Soon enough I saw patterns arise and you start to apply them. Part of my strategy early on was to avoid making useless efforts, to avoid wasting energy. I remember in my first year, this one kid won all of the races. I rode badly, attacking way too early each time. He won every time until the day where I waited for the sprint and then beat him. The next year I won like eight races and the next year 25.

Later, we also had the opportunity to race a lot of criteriums, something that really doesn’t exist any more in France. They were a great school and really taught you how to race. My plan going into each criterium was simple. The first prime paid for the gas, the second for the meal and the third for my room. After that, the race started. I can tell you that when you race like that, you learn the science of racing.

In only your first year as a director, you coached Belgian climber Van Impe to victory. Many never really considered him a Tour winner. Was it a surprise for you? Oh no, not really. I knew Lucien as a rider. I’d raced against him since our amateur days in the Tour de l’Avenir. But, as I’ve said, it’s not easy to win the Tour with someone that didn’t want to! And Lucien was complicated. He had never really raced to win the Tour. He raced under the shadow of Eddy Merckx. And, in addition, he was Belgian. As a Belgian, he could not ride against Eddy. Imagine if he had made Eddy lose a Tour de France! He would have been persona non grata. He would never have gotten a criterium contract, which back in the day, was 75 percent of your revenue. He would have been exiled. If he had been French that would have been another thing. But he was Belgian. And since he couldn’t really race against Merckx, he focused on the polka-dot jersey, which he won six times.

But when I had him, my directions were different. The year I was coaching him, I told him he couldn’t go for the bestclimber jersey. I told him he was going for yellow. And the year he won the Tour was about the only year he did not win the polka-dot jersey.

When you took over the team, you had another talent on the team, Hinault, who turned pro in 1975. Did you have any idea already that he was going to become the greatest rider of his generation? Oh yeah, I had known that for a while already. I first started racing with him in 1974, when he was on the French national team and they did some races with the pros. Then I raced against him in the first year of his career. You could just tell. It was just obvious. When you are on a guy’s wheel and you see the strength that he has, well, you don’t need a calculator. It’s just obvious.

What was Hinault’s greatest strength? His greatest strength? That’s simple. He was quite simply the strongest rider ever to get on a bike. He was the biggest motor, the rider with the most potential that ever raced a bike. Already his VO2 max was around 89…just huge. Physically, there is no question, he was even stronger than Merckx. But he didn’t like to train. Merckx trained every day. If ever Hinault had trained like Merckx, he would never have lost a bike race. That’s how strong he was. If he wanted to win a mass sprint, he would win a mass sprint. When he wanted to win in the mountains, he won in the mountains. It was as simple as that.

Well, even with Hinault on your team, you still managed to stay out in front on the recruiting, as you signed LeMond and then Fignon, who both went on to become Tour winners. What is your first memory of Greg? My first memory of Greg was in the Ruban Granitier Breton, which is now the Tour of Brittany, back in 1980. I was already interested in signing him and was following the last stage. Greg was in the winning break, and in a perfect position to win, when he flatted. But his director’s car was behind the break, so when it finally got to him, the break was four minutes up the road and his race was over. LeMond was furious. He got back on and chased for a while but then just stopped. He threw his bike down. I was with the French director at the time and he said, “Are you still interested in this kid?” And I told him, “Now more than ever!” If he had not shown such outrage at losing like that, I would have been disappointed. That was the reaction of a winner.

You could just tell. He had that amazing strength in his waist, like all great champions. He raced smart. He had real style and you could just sense that he had a real personality. And it all proved to be true. Greg really listened and he analyzed things well. With Greg, there was no need to repeat things. He had real intelligence when it came to racing.

Bernard Hinault, Tour de France, 1981. Guimard driving the team car. Image: Yuzuru Sunada.

“He was quite simply the strongest rider ever to get on a bike.”And what about Fignon? Let’s see, I think it was the Tour of Corsica in 1981. I signed him for 1982 and he won the Tour in 1983. With riders like Greg and Laurent, you don’t have to have them do a lot of tests or anything. You can tell right away that they have what it takes to be a great rider. Fignon really read races well and he also read his adversaries well too, something that is equally important.

LeMond won three Tours and Fignon two. Who was stronger on paper? Neither really. Both had pretty much the same qualities when it came to climbing or time trialing. It really depended on the race.

You have long been considered one of the great strategists of the sport, but cycling has changed a lot and so has strategy. No, the strategy hasn’t changed—it just doesn’t exist any longer, that’s all! The strategy is now done on computers, calculating watts, et cetera. All that is left is to go to the front and string the race out behind you. If your team has more collective watts then they win. Look at the sprints these days. There are 5 teams next to each other all in single file with five kilometers to go. It’s just a big drag race. It’s the strategy of watts. There is no longer an intellectual strategy, simply a strategy based on power output. Guys don’t look at their adversaries. They don’t study their pedal stroke to analyze their chances. They are just looking at their computers.

Well, last year, Chris Froome employed some strategy it seems. After all, he attacked on a descent in the Pyrénées. He attacked on the flat roads into Montpellier with Peter Sagan…. Oh, I don’t know. I don’t consider his attack on the descent into Luchon as anything more than a marketing coup. It’s just that [Nairo] Quintana was more concerned with getting a water bottle then staying on Froome’s wheel. If he had followed Froome nothing would have happened. Today, the teams that still rely on strategy are the teams that don’t have the strongest rider, the guys that don’t have the best chance to win on paper have no choice but to ride strategically.

Tom Dumoulin won the 2017 Giro d’Italia in dramatic fashion. Image: Yuzuru Sunada.

“The only guy I see being able to get to that level is Tom Dumoulin.”It seems that all we talk about in the sport is marginal gains. Sky, of course, led this movement but others have followed suit to the point where the playing field may be level again, hence requiring teams and riders to race more strategically again? Each period has its tendencies. Right now the tendency is to race with earphones and computers. Contrary to popular opinion, the earphones don’t make racing safer, they make racing more dangerous. It’s an ongoing distraction, like if everybody was driving down the highway talking on telephones. You couple that with guys always looking at the data on their computer and racing becomes a lot more dangerous. But, yeah, the day that they do away with earphones I think strategy will play a greater role again. But for the moment, no one seems very interested in returning to the past.

Do you still manage to get excited about the racing today? Sure, guys still have to pedal. There are still brakes on a bike. There is always a moment in racing where it becomes simply that: bike racing.

Is Chris Froome beatable in the near future? Oh yeah, totally. But how? The easiest would be to limit the total number of watts on a team! No, I’m joking. But first you have to put together a team that is as strong on paper. And then you need a rider that can rival Froome. Who is that though? We’ve seen plenty of riders burst onto the scene in the last few years, [Fabio] Aru or [Vincenzo] Nibali are not progressing any more. Quintana should have won a Tour already; he often is blocked on his own team by [Alejandro] Valverde. In addition, like so many Colombians, he really loses a lot of energy keeping position on the flatter stages. As a result he is less incisive when the mountains come.

One thing is sure though—Froome is not improving any more. He too has stagnated. The only guy I see being able to get to that level is Tom Dumoulin. All great Tour riders are great time trialers first. Pure climbers manage to win one Tour, but not two. Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes, Lucien Van Impe, Pedro Delgado, Marco Pantani were all great climbers. And they all won just one Tour. No, the day that Dumoulin is more consistent in the high mountains, he’ll be a Tour winner.

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