An audacious attack in the opening week of the 2016 Vuelta a Espana. Far too early to succeed: 8km out on the skirmishing ramps of the day’s final climb. Pah! But, of course, I will the chancers on as I calculate whether there’s still time to stick the kettle on before it all really kicks-off. Except this is one of those magical days: The elastic stays snapped, the shoe-ins – nailed-on Mountain Goats and Great White Hopes all – race for who-cares-what place as a Neo-Pro steals a Grand Tour stage from under their noses and a forgotten kettle whistles forlornly out in the kitchen. And then, something even more fun: Social media, its piercing, post-stage light shining into every corner as ever, kicked up a result sheet from an obscure evening ‘Club 10’ time-trial that took place a few km from my house some 4 years ago. There’s a French guy’s name on it… my mind drifts back. I start to remember – yes, there was a French guy racing the local 10’s for a summer back around then – I think I even (maybe?) pinned a number on against him and that damned clock… Surely not? Could it really be?…
Ciclissimo! So, how did you come to find yourself racing Club 10’s in Nottingham? What was it that brought you to this slightly obscure city in UK’s East Midlands?
Lilian Calmejane: It was in 2012. At this time I was more implicated in my school time than my cycling life. I did a business course for 3 years and we had a foreign internship during the second year. My first goal was to improve my English and I found an internship that gave me free time to discover England, enjoy it and ride in this country. My school had a contact with Paul Wilde, a man who is responsible for Erasmus exchanges from universities in the UK to the rest of Europe and also from Europe to UK. So, that’s why I spent all my summer 2012 in Nottingham.
C! Whilst here you raced a few local ‘Club 10’s’ – Mapperley CC & Nottingham Clarion to name a couple. I remember seeing a mystery French rider in a red & yellow race kit who posted some impressive times on a standard road bike. Which team were you racing for at this point?
LC: At this time I was riding for an amateur team in southern France whose name is Occitane Cyclisme Formation. There are other professionals who where in this team at their beginning, for example Blel Kadri who went on to become a stage winner at the Tour de France.
C! How did you enjoy the Club 10’s? Not that I’m really sure it’s possible to ‘enjoy’ those violent little efforts though!
LC: At this time I was very surprised and excited by this kind of event because in France you don’t have the culture of time trial and often you can’t do this on the road because people are more and more annoyed by riders.
C! Did you race any road races whilst in the UK?
LC: Yes: I was hoping to race more but it was difficult for me without an English club and also without personal car. I did a critérium in Nottingham with some riders of Team Raleigh I remember. I finished 11th, it was short effort but good to renew with competition.
C! After you left Nottingham, talk us through your racing career in terms of key results – you have had some great placings in many youth category races in the last couple of years that surely helped you get to the point you where you signed for Team Direct Energie
LC: Exact, after this experience in Nottingham, in 2013, I passed my exams with success and I decided to take a chance to ride as a Professional. That’s why I went to Vendee U, one of the biggest teams in France for young riders. I did two years with lots of good results: Stage win in the mountainous Ronde de l’Isard (MU 2.2), a stage win in the Tour de Bretagne (2.2), winning a stage and overall classification at Triptyque Monts et Châteaux (2.2) and lot’s of French Elite races.
C! So – the big topic: Your first Grand Tour and you take a very classy mountain top victory! How did the stage evolve after the race began?
LC: The day before my win, we saw that a breakaway took the win. So, at the beginning of stage 4, lots of riders were motivated to take part in the breakaway. I lost lots of energy to take part in it but we were 21 riders so we had good chance to play for the victory. I felt in good shape so I decided to focus on the last climb. I stayed at the back of the group because the goal was to be forgotten by the other riders. I attacked at 8km from the finish and I gave everything: During those 20 minutes I had an of average 410W with a gap between 15 and 30 seconds. I think the other riders were surprised by my attack – they were more focused on riders like Atapuma or Rolland.
C! Did you believe all the way after your move was made or was there a point when it hit you that the stage would be yours?
LC: I understood that I had good chance to win the stage after the small downhill at 4km to the finish line, but I was focused on my effort because it was still more than 10 minutes of racing and the hardest percentages of the climb to come. I really knew that I would win the stage at 500 meters of the finish line. I could enjoy it and zip up my jersey to thank all the partners of the team and celebrate it.
C! Can you even put into words how it felt to cross the line on that day?!
LC: I had lots of adrenaline, i was crazy and it felt awesome with the whole crowd, those Spanish fans. When I crossed the line, I had a special thought for my friend Romain Guyot who died tragically in March. I did a heart for him because it was the way he celebrated his win.
C! There was a crazy day later in the race, one that will be talked about for years to come: The day of the Contador/ Quintana massacre on Stage 15! What was the atmosphere in the peloton like as it dawned on everyone what had happened and that the race had been blown to pieces?
LC: I think that the day before, that one killed everybody. It was completely crazy, the scorching heat, the vertical drop, the speed of the race… So when Contador and Tinkoff attacked at the beginning of stage, there were lots of damage into the bunch. Froome was trapped up front; his team-mates too – but in a third group – in reality the bunch, around 100 riders. We chased during 20km but the gap just grew more and more. Sky stopped chasing and all the riders were surprised: Nobody wanted to ride for Sky. Charismatic riders decided to neutralize the group and ride calmly, within us. We knew that we would recover.
C! On the final ‘competition day’ you had another great result, 8th place. You clearly felt good so deep into the 3 weeks: How was that day? It must have been a great morale boost to find you could be so competitive on the final weekend?
LC: For me it was important to finish well the Vuelta for the future, and also because I had some very bad moments in the end of second week. I knew that in the group there were better climbers than me but I wanted to give all my best to finish the Vuelta. It was not planned because the tactic was to stay calm in the wheel, to recover as well as possible for the next week and the European Championships with the French national team – but my spirit was stronger than reason!
C! What were you emotions and stand-out memories as you found yourself in Madrid after finishing your first Grand Tour?
LC: When you across the line you are very happy to finish because you know the pain and you know that you will be not suffering anymore. Then you share this special moment with your team-mates and the staff and you feel proud of yourself, mostly of when we won a stage!
Sirotti images courtesy of Team Direct Energie, other images from Lilian himself – Merci!