The Popular Frenchman
Sandy Casar is a popular figure in French cycling, as a former professional, and now as one of the Tour’s official hosts. But today at the start of stage 18, Casar is even more popular. Today’s second alpine stage in this year’s tour finishes in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. And Casar is the last rider to win, when the Tour finished here in 2010.
“It was my last great victory, and my last victory as a professional,” Casar recounts before start of the stage in Gap.
Words & images: James Startt
From: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, France
On that day, the race climbed up the legendary Col de la Madeleine, before blasting down into the Maurienne Valley to Saint Jean. Cresting the top with Spanish rider Luis Leon Sanchez, he then went on to beat Sanchez in a technical, sinuous sprint. “That day was special because I was in a breakaway with Luis Leon Sanchez. Over the years, he was my bête noir. We were always in breakaways together it seemed. Often he beat me. But on that day, I got my revenge.”
It was a popular victory for the French that year, and the town honored him by making him the town’s ambassador, along with two-time Tour de France winner Bernard Thevenet.
But then, Casar, who rode for the FDJ team from 1999 to 2013 was always a popular rider in France. Although he never won often, he always won in style. In addition, he was always very outspoken against doping, in a period where he was in a definite minority.
“Casar was a pioneer for clean cycling and he showed the current generation, young riders like Thibaut Pinot, that it was possible to ride clean,” says Pierre Carey, journalist with the French daily Libération. “Many on his team thought that he had the potential to finish in the top three in the Tour. But he had the misfortune of riding in a very complicated period when it comes to doping. He never finished in the top three, but he did win three stages.”
One of Casar’s strengths was his tactical sense, something he shares with the VIP guests that ride along with him every day in the Tour. “I really like meeting new people and sharing my knowledge with them so that they understand the sport a little bit better. I explain the tactics to them, the insides and outs. The best thing someone can say to me after a day in the race, is that they understand the sport better and that they have more desire to watch a bike race,” says Casar. “But sometimes I have to watch myself because sometimes I forget that I’m not racing any more and I talk to my guests like my old teammates.”
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While Casar was an adequate climber, he never got to force the pace with the overall contenders. Instead he had to read the race and constantly look for opportunities when the favorites might let the breakaway go.
“You know, when you do the Alps before the before the Pyrénées, it’s a very different race. If the Alps come first, people are still testing themselves, trying to see where they are compared to their rivals. A lot more people are still thinking about the overall classification. But if they come at the end, like this year, then a lot of people are well down in the rankings and so they are looking for breakaway possibilities. It’s a very different race.”
Going into the day’s stage, Casar predicted another breakaway, much like yesterday’s stage to Pra Loup. “Today, I don’t see Thibaut Pinot though. I think he is going to be tired from the breakaway yesterday. Plus he crashed,” Casar said. “And, there is no uphill finish. Tomorrow at La Toussuire will be better for him. No, I see somebody more like Romain Bardet. When I was riding, if I really focused on a stage, I would often just sit in the day before, not kill myself. Bardet didn’t do much yesterday and his still hungry for a stage win. He his a good climber, and a good descender. That will be important today.”
And although Casar is no longer a rider himself, he still reads a race pretty well. When a large breakaway slipped away early into the race, both Pinot and Bardet where in it. But as predicted, Pinot faltered, while Bardet blasted away in the final meters of the Col du Glandon, bombed down the treacherous descent, to a stunning solo victory.
“You see, I still know what I’m talking about,” Casar said with a modest smile after the finish.
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