Is Pierre Rolland the next big thing?

Friday, 22 July 2011

Pierre Rolland Alpe d'Huez

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.

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{ 12 comments }

@ScienceTwitt July 22, 2011 at 9:00 pm

I watched an interview and when his DS praised him Rolland near broke into tears and had to take a second before speaking. Its a snapshot but he seemed very humble. He knows the climb well and mentioned knowing exactly when he could put the 53 into action. Lets see how he TTs with that climb in his legs; that will give us an idea of what he has to make up before being the real deal. A great ride and the kart racing swerves on the upper slopes with contador made for great watching. He has gained a lot from riding with Voekler and hes been the reason Voekler has kept the jersey for so many days.

Higgins July 22, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Context. That’s why I love this site. Chapeau!

Patrick July 22, 2011 at 9:14 pm

A little nitpick, is the word ‘French’ missing from the last paragraph? Great piece otherwise!

Bundle July 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm

As I’m not buying what people are writing around the Internet (e.g. that the Europcar surge is suspicious because it’s dramatic and collectieve), I agree with seeing a bright future in front of Rolland. With him and Voeckler in the Tour, Gadret in the Giro, and Chavanel in the Classics, we are witnessing a comeback of French cycling (and Kern has also been impressive). Which is great for the sport. Without the French, cycling is not the same. Already looking forward to seeing what they can do in the Vuelta and World Championships. But they’ve already achieved more this year than in any of the previous 15.
PS: Patrick is right. Rolland is the 2nd FRENCH winner in the Alpe d’Huez.

LeonG July 22, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Mmmmm!…..when the media start their hype Rolland needs to protect himself from it otherwise he’ll end up being once upon a time.

Duluth Baptist Clydesdale July 23, 2011 at 12:45 am

Rolland impressed many with his domestique work for Voeckler, but all he was this year was a domestique. There wasn’t a lot of “best French rider” attention given him, and obviously Voeckler’s run in yellow overshadowed his impressive climbing and GC performance. Even today all the focus was on Voeckler, right up to the foot if Alpe d’Huez.

My takeaway? We have no idea how he will ride with pressure on him. This post well explains that his career as the “next big thing” has been rocky so far; now, his position as a French GC favorite is inescapable. Voeckler was gutty and impressive this year, but at no time in his life has he ever threatened to win a mountaintop stage; Rolland just won the biggest one possible, and he did it ahead of the best climbers in the world. And Contador and Sanchez weren’t racing for second, either. Look out for the hype.

Cameron July 23, 2011 at 8:16 am

Did anyone else see when Contador caught him and he was riding in Alberto’s wheel, Bertie looking back and Pierre then grimaced, relaxing his face only after Contador looked back in front? Thought that was brilliant.

Not to mention, not keeping up with Alberto’s accelerations and going into the red bu, then following Samu’s wheel who he guessed was riding overall, quicker than Contador.

Then he toyed with Contador himself after he couldn’t shake him!

What a racing mind at such a young age! Chapeau Rolland.

Rider Council July 23, 2011 at 11:34 am

Sorry, but everyone is on the big ring for the last part of the climb!. The next best thing usually takes a few years to come around. At 24 and having just won on top of an iconic mountain stage, a symbolic climb throughout the history of the sport, you are pretty much still the next best thing. Perhaps Mr Lefevere knows a little bit more about a rider’s potential? 68 kg and tall is actually a good classic rider build. Stephen Rooks a winner of LBL and Amstel also won on d’Huez in 1988. One would hope Nicolas Roche thinks more Irish not French and prepares for the classics and gives up chasing a tour victory before it’s too late.

The Inner Ring July 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Rider Council: it’s big ring once the riders are in the town, not before. Note Lefevere was actually comparing Rolland to Boonen, the full context was to exploit his potential as a “rouleur” and add some weight to make him a candidate for the classics.

Rider Council July 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Only a certain DS on ‘poe’ could ride all of a HC on a big ring. Go man Poe! By the way Mr Poe also redefined what a climber might be or is today. ‘Rouleur’ is a general term like ‘passista’ and quite meaningless indicator behind the scenes when it comes to determining future champions. It’s useful for fans however. Turning and guiding a rider’s focus to the ‘classics’ whether it’s a hilly stoney one or has an Ardennes/Limburg profile is not as simple as adding or subtracting weight. I think we should respect, maybe not challenge the opinions of those who know more given their experience and insight particularly when they have track record that speaks for itself.

STG July 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm

A good rider but he needs trainer, Europcar does not invest in rider improvement. Rolland for classics? No, I saw him the Ronde de l’Isard stage in Pyrenees. He is the mountain winner and must stay far from Belgium flat road.

Matt July 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

@Bundle: I don’t think this is the big comeback of French cycling. I think most of the rest of cycling is on a big comedown back to a more realistic level. There’s some really insightful commentary about climbing performances sportsscientists.com

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