Veteran French rider Thomas Voeckler has found his protégé. His name is Lilian Calmejane, a 24-year old Direct Énergie teammate who rode to a stunning Tour of Spain stage win as a first-year professional in 2016. Calmejane continued his winning ways this year with an impressive overall victory at the Etoile de Besieges stage race last month. For some insiders, including Voeckler, a new French star has been born. Calmejane is looking for continued success this week at Paris-Nice….
Words by James Startt | Images by James Startt and Yuzuru Sunada
Peloton Magazine: Lilian, you’ve had an amazing career start, winning a stage of the Vuelta a España in your first season and already taken a stage race victory in the Étoile des Bessèges this year. Could you ever have expected to get off to such a good start in your professional career?
Lilian Calmejane: Well, it would have been difficult! It’s never easy when you are starting out as a neo-pro. There are always a lot of doubts, as we don’t really know how we rate with more established pros. We never know what to expect. Unlike a lot of riders, however, I turned pro a bit late. I’m already 24. A lot of guys turn pro while they are still under-23 riders, but not me. I turned pro a year later. As a result, I turned pro with real ambition to do something right away. I know that I didn’t have any more time to lose. Of course, I could never have predicted that I would win this or that race.
Peloton: Were you worried that you might never turn professional?
Calmejane: Well, physically, I developed late. I was a good-enough rider, but not French national team material. As a result, I focused on my studies and got a BA in business with a four-month exchange program in Nottingham, England. As a result, there was one year in there where I really didn’t ride much. But when I turned 20, the results really started coming and although I really wanted to finish my degree I knew that afterwards I was going to concentrate on cycling. I sent my résumé out to the best amateur teams and got selected to ride for Vendée U, which was not only one of the best teams, but also the farm club of Europcar [the former title sponsor of Direct Énergie]. And I knew that Jean-René Bernadeau, the team manager, only signs his amateur riders to the pro team. So I knew that if I had the results, I would have a good chance of turning pro with them. And that’s what happened, and the professional adventure finally began in 2016.
Peloton: Well, you have demonstrated just how ambitious you are with an impressive stage win already on stage 4 of the Tour of Spain.
Calmejane: Yeah, well, I saw that the day before the breakaway stayed away so I knew it was possible. I had already done some big WorldTour races during the season, so I wasn’t intimidated by the level of racing. I remember, the stage started super fast but I got into the breakaway. When I saw that the break was going to stay away, I really played the card of the unknown rider, because, well, I was a lot less known than the others in the break like Pierre Rolland or Darwin Atapuma. I also knew that the last climb was good for me. So I attacked early on the final 9-kilometer climb. I just dropped everyone and soloed to victory. Pierre Rolland was chasing hard, but when I realized that he wasn’t going to catch me, I just knew that I would win. I couldn’t have predicted a stage victory so early in the race, but I came to the race with the goal of getting into as many breakaways as possible.
Peloton: How did you know that the climb suited you well? After all, as a neo-pro, you most likely had never raced it before?
Calmejane: No, but I know myself well. A 9-kilometer climb is, what, a 15-minute effort? I’m not a pure climber. I weigh 68 kilos [150 pounds] in peak condition. That’s too heavy to be a pure climber. But for a climb up to 30 minutes, I can handle that. I’m not the most-calculated rider, but I always train with a power meter and on that climb, I just rode within myself. And when the others couldn’t close the gap, I knew I’d win.
Peloton: Already on your Direct Énergie team, you have earned the reputation as a rider who’s focused on the technical side of the sport.
Calmejane: Yeah, it’s always intrigued me. When I was young I was already intrigued by all of the details. I was always intrigued by training and how to train the best to improve your results. From a young age I wanted to know what kind of rider I was, what were my strengths and what were my weaknesses. I discovered Strava when I was in England and I love climbing the big climbs around my home to monitor myself, but also to see how I compare to others.
Peloton: And you started this season right where you left off, winning the Étoile des Bessèges.
Calmejane: Yeah, but there were some real lows as well. Twice after my stage win in the Vuelta, I finished in the gruppetto later in the race. On stage 15, I even finished outside of the time limit, but I was in a big group so I wasn’t disqualified. But at the end of the second week of the race I really wondered how I possibly could have won a stage in the Vuelta. That said, once the race was over, yeah, it gave me confidence. And because of my results the team got behind me more and we defined a real calendar with concrete objectives.
Peloton: You’ve already won a climbing stage in a grand tour. You’ve already won a stage race. What kind of a rider are you?
Calmejane: Oh, I don’t know. For the media, the team as well as myself, it is really hard to categorize just what kind of rider I am or am going to be. I’m pretty good in a lot of areas, but not excellent in anything. For the moment I’d like to concentrate on one-week stage races…like Paris-Nice. That’s a real goal for me considering the way I am riding at the moment. And I think as I progress physically and gain experience I can really do something in weeklong stage races. For the grand tours, however, I think I am far from that. I can’t imagine racing day in and day out without ever having a bad day for three entire weeks! But then there are cases, like with my teammate Thomas Voeckler, of riders that are not total Tour riders making a real impact on the general classification. For the moment, however, I see myself going more for stages in the grand tours. In addition, a lot of GC riders spend their time controlling and conserving their effort. And what I like about this sport is the element of chance, attacking and trying your chance.
Peloton: How about the classics?
Calmejane: Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This year, we are doing Flèche-Wallonne, Amstel Gold and Liège. I’m looking forward to that!
Peloton: You just cited Thomas Voeckler, the legendary leader of your team. Have you been able to train or work with him much?
Calmejane: Oh yeah, already as an amateur we rode together a fair amount because we lived not too far from one another, and now that he is in his final year, he is really in the spirit of sharing all he knows. So we talk a lot. And the day he stops, he is going to leave a real void within the team, as well as with the press and public. He is just so charismatic. He’s a real boss and you have to have the shoulders to carry that responsibility, because a real leader is not just a leader on the bike but off the bike. Thomas is a leader in life; he will put things on the table when they need be said, but he also knows when to buy a round of drinks for everyone. The Thomas that I know is the Thomas at the end of his career. I didn’t know the young Thomas, or the Thomas when he was yellow jersey. There is a sense of wisdom now. But he has a strong character and I think he always had it.
Peloton: Observing Thomas, you know what it means to be a leader already!
Calmejane: Yeah, and I’m even getting a chance to be a leader on the team now. I was the designated leader at the Étoile des Bessèges and I have the role of a protected rider this spring, even if I am still learning. And Thomas is helping with that, giving me little tips here and there. But he is watching me. He will analyze an interview I do and tell me what I did right or wrong. But this team is his family and I think it is comforting for him to know that there are young riders coming up that can take over, guys like Bryan Coquard or myself. And, personally, I want to live up to his expectations.