Aged 24, Pierre Rolland won the Tour de France stage on Alpe d’Huez today and took the White Jersey. Is he the next big thing in French cycling? No, Pierre Rolland was the next big thing three years ago.
It happened in 2008 when he was a second year pro on the Crédit Agricole team and took the mountains jersey in the Dauphiné stage race in June, aged just 21. Don’t take my word for it, back then cyclingnews.com asked aloud: is Pierre Rolland France’s next big thing?
Rolland is from Gien in the Loire valley, famous for its pottery works. He started playing around on a mountain bike as kid, then guided to cyclo-cross by a local club and then onto the road. In time he joined the French national squad but he didn’t set the scene on fire. In his first year with the seniors he moved to Brittany to race for the Super Sport 35 amateur team. This team was managed by Stéphane Heulot who has used this structure to build the Saur-Sojasun team but that’s a whole other story. He did two seasons with Heulot before signing for Crédit Agricole as a stagiaire at the end of 2006 and then a full pro contract for 2007.
The first pro season started well. In fact he won his first ever race, the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon. Perhaps not the biggest race but later in the season he won a stage in the hard Tour du Limousin. But it was in 2008 that he really impressed with two top-10 stage finishes in Paris-Nice which earned him a spot in the A-team on Crédit Agricole with rides in Liège–Bastogne–Liège and then the Dauphiné stage race where he took the King of the Mountains competition.
Such early success though brings a weight of expectations and in France, where a home rider has not won the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault in 1985, the burden can be crushing. Crédit Agricole left the sport and Rolland found there was a bidding war for his services, he finally joined the Bbox-Bouygues team (today Europcar) on, I think, a deal of about €200,00 and enough to indulge his hobby of collecting watches. Not bad for a rider with only a handful of wins.
The salary might be good but the pressure wasn’t. A range of factors meant 2009 didn’t go to plan, his best place was a third spot in Gabon and in Europe his season saw just one top-10 finish, although he rode the Tour de France. Come 2010 and things picked up, he came into form in late May and by June was in the top-10 on the mountain stages of the Dauphiné and finishing eight overall. He went to the Tour de France where his best result was fourth on the Alpine Chambéry-Gap stage. All along there were profiles in the press, interviews and with time, frustration.
At one point Quick Step’s Patrick Lefevere said Rolland was wasting his time, that the he was really a classics rider but his French team, being French, were trying to mould him into a Tour de France rider. Lefevere said Rolland should instead aim for the classics. Rolland a classics rider? I’m not so sure as he weighs 68kg (150lbs) for 1.83m (6ft).
But this Tour de France seems to have changed things. The pressure had dropped off, some transferred to John Gadret and Jérôme Coppel. Plus Romain Sicard and Thibaut Pinot have both had “France’s next big thing” treatment. And working for Thomas Voeckler has given Rolland a new motivation and confidence. Beyond this the peloton looks different, Rolland’s time up Alpe d’Huez was not extra-terrestrial and there was no tailwind.
But what ever the explanations he rode fast up Alpe d’Huez today, attacking before the climb, he was later passed by Contador and tried to follow but couldn’t, only to find Samuel Sanchez easier to track. He then put the chain onto the 53-chainring on the final hairpin bend to leave the Spanish duo behind. This kind of riding is no accident, if he can do this then he can win other significant races.
We’ll see what the future brings, he could just be a solid domestique but as only the second French rider to win on Alpe d’Huez since Bernard Hinault in 1986, he’s got something special. He himself knows it, when packing his bags for the Tour de France he packed a white watch just so it would match the white jersey. But if someone says Rolland could be the next big thing in France, tell them he already was three years ago.