A former pro cyclist and cancer survivor, Frenchman Sébastien Joly is now a key member of the FDJ coaching staff. And although his racing days are well behind him, he is passionate about performance at its highest level and has helped usher this one-time traditional French team into the modern era.

Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
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Peloton Magazine: Sébastien, you were a professional for more than 10 years before moving into coaching. In many ways it was a natural transition, correct?

Sébastien Joly: Yes, I was a professional from 2000 to 2011. As a rider, I saw the sport evolve a lot in terms of training and equipment, and it was always something that interested me. When I was on the Credit Agricole team in 2004 and 2005 I started working with my first trainer, Denis Roux. But it was when I came to Française des Jeux in 2006 and started working with Frédéric Grappe that I really became more interested in the technical side of the sport.

Peloton: After retiring in 2011, your returned to FDJ as a trainer in 2015 and have really helped modernize the team….

Joly: Yes, after I stopped racing, I became interested in coaching. I started first with Team Europcar in 2013 before returning to FDJ as a coach. Here, there are really three of us that work very closely under Frédéric [Grappe], the performance director. There is Julien Pinot, the brother of Thibaut, David Han and myself. Each of us works with 10 riders on the team, but then we also have specific roles regarding all technical developments. Julien focuses on the engineering aspects of all the equipment, while I serve as the tester. And David coordinates all the team’s data as well as scouting. For example, if we are testing a new set of wheels or a new bike, Julien will study everything on paper, and analyze all of the tests we do regarding stiffness, rigidity, aerodynamics, et cetera. I will go out and ride the equipment, but without knowing what is what. I will ride, say, three different prototypes of a bike, without knowing the specifics about each prototype. And then Julien and I compare our notes. We really work hand in hand.

Joly helps an FDJ rider with final details before the last stage of Paris-Nice this spring.
Joly helps an FDJ rider with final details before the last stage of Paris-Nice this spring.

Peloton: Well, that keeps you busy! And it also keeps you on your bike. How many kilometers a year do you do?

Joly: Well, I ride a lot less than when I was a pro, maybe between 5,000 and 8,000 kilometers a year. It’s not very consistent, because I travel about 100 days a year. I always bring my running shoes with me. I’m not cycling, but what is important is that I stay in good enough shape to be able to test all the new equipment. It’s exciting.

Peloton: Be it as a rider or a coach, you’ve really witnessed pro cycling’s transformation into a very hi-tech sport.

Joly: Absolutely! Even after several years as a professional, say in 2006, there were only a handful of us that rode with power meters. Ten years later, everybody rides with one. It’s a different way of seeing the sport and a different way of analyzing it. Most of it is good and has really helped riders improve, and I would say that the general level of the sport has improved. But sometimes riders today are so fixated on the numbers and on the watts that they don’t listen to their bodies. I often tell riders, “Don’t lose yourself in the watts.” Its really interesting to study such things, and very helpful. But a lot in bike racing depends on how the rider feels and how they feel or read the race.

Peloton: With all of the technological developments as well as training and dietary improvements, the physical gap between riders has narrowed. Where are the marginal gains today?

Joly: Well, specifically in the material. That’s why Julien and I spend so much time testing equipment. We’re always trying to find a helmet that is a little more aerodynamic or a fabric that is just a little faster or a bike that is just a little faster. We work very closely with our partners as well.

In the Tour of Italy this week, the riders will be using a new model of Lapierre’s Aircode, an aerodynamic sprint bike that we worked on closely with Arnaud Démare. Both Arnaud and I rode several prototypes before we decided which one was best. And during that test period, we may go back to Lapierre and say: “Can you make the bike more rigid in the head tube or rear triangle.” Our goal is not just to have the stiffest bike but to have the best bike. Sometimes the stiffest bike in not the most dynamic bike.

Peloton: Do you think that the fact that you started racing at a time when the sport was less science-oriented has given you a certain perspective?

Joly: Well, I think cycling is a combination of numbers and feelings.

Peloton: You had a long career as a professional but also a chaotic one. In 2007, you were third in the prologue and finished in the top 12 of Paris-Nice and just seemed to be coming into your own, when you were diagnosed with testicular cancer, like Lance Armstrong. Although you managed to return to the sport, you never really raced at the same level again.

Joly: Yeah, you are right. It was the same year. I was 28 years old and my career came to a halt. My cancer did not progress nearly as far as Lance’s, but it hit my digestive tubes. I had radiotherapy but it was pretty aggressive and really affected my intestines. And when you understand as a cyclist just how important digestion is to recovery, well it’s a big part. Perhaps I tried to come back too quickly, but I never felt as strong as I did before. I remember Lance sent me an email when he learned of my cancer, which really touched me, and we chatted at the start of the 2009 Tour when he was making his comeback.

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Peloton: You’ve seen training and equipment evolve immensely. Is there still room for improvement?

Joly: It’s not just the training and equipment that has changed, everything has changed. Today, nearly every team has their own cook and at least half the teams have a truck with a kitchen in it. Before, riders just ate a sandwich after the race, now they get specially made salads, depending on their dietary needs. Before, a director looked at the map of the stage in the morning and showed you a couple of key spots in the race. Today, the riders get a full video presentation of the stage with Google images that show specific spots that can be difficult. Everything is more specific. All of this has really helped improve riders’ performances.

Peloton: And where can we go now?

Joly: Oh, I think there is always room for improvement. That said, in the last 10 years we’ve taken a huge step. But there will always be ways to improve.