In his short, two-year pro career Frenchman Lilian Calmejane has earned a reputation as a rider capable of producing an outstanding ride on any given day. And while his solo stage victory in the 2016 Vuelta a España stunned many, no one will forget his extraordinary performance on stage 8 of this year’s Tour de France when, despite severe cramping, he held on for the win on an uphill finish. And now, about to start his third season, Calmejane has been promoted to team leader of his Direct Energie team after the retirement of the iconic Thomas Voeckler. PELOTON caught up with Calmejane to discuss his impressive rise in the sport and take a look at his own expectations in the years to come.
Words & Images: James Startt, European Associate to PELOTON
PELOTON Magazine: Lilian, after winning a stage at the Vuelta a España as a neo-pro, you more than confirmed all of the expectations placed on you this year with several early-season wins and then, of course, a memorable stage victory in the Tour de France. Were you surprised with such progress in only your second year as a professional?
Lilian Calmejane: Well, I definitely felt that I had made a huge step in terms of my own physical condition at the beginning of the season. I could see that right away. But translating that into victory is another thing. Winning just depends on so many things. To have seven victories including stage races, as well as a stage in the Tour de France, well, I wasn’t expecting that. I was hoping to raise my arms at the line of a WorldTour race, but I thought a WorldTour victory might come in a race like Paris–Nice. The fact that such a victory happened at the Tour was something else really. But I’m certainly not going to be picky when it comes to victory! In addition, one thing that really satisfied me was my ability to ride well throughout the season all the way until the world championships. That said, while I won seven races this year, I don’t want to get into a cycle where I am disappointed if I win less. Like I said, victory depends on so many things.
PELOTON: Relive for us your incredible stage victory in the Tour when, despite severe cramping, you managed to stay away for an impressive solo win. At the start of the Tour, were you focusing on this stage to Les Rousses, the first true mountain stage of the race?
Calmejane: Well, although it was my first Tour, I came into it with definite goals and ambition and, for sure, the stage to Les Rousses was one of the stages I had marked down as a possibility. It really corresponded with my own physical capabilities, being a hard, mid-mountain stage. It came after a week of racing and I knew it would be a real race of attrition.
PELOTON: Yeah, well, a race where the strongest rider can barely stay on his bike due to cramping is most definitely an incredible race of attrition.
Calmejane: For sure! First off, you had to make the breakaway. And let me tell you that took some doing! There were attacks from the start and it wasn’t until after nearly two hours of racing that the break actually got away. But then there were still something like 50 of us in the group. I mean 50 riders—that is a peloton all by itself! Obviously there was still going to be plenty of attacks to come. Fortunately I had some teammates in the group with me and they really put it down so that I could make the final split. After the feed zone, attacks started again and guys like Warren Barguil and Greg Van Avermaet went up the road. My teammates really chased hard, along with some guys from Cannondale, and then I got into the counterattack with what were clearly the strongest riders left in the race. I was with guys like Robert Gesink, Jan Bakelants, Van Avermaet and Barguil. When I looked around, just about everyone in the group had won a stage in a grand tour!
PELOTON: Were you surprised to be the strongest at the end that day?
Calmejane: Yeah, a bit. At the foot of the last climb there were a lot of attacks and we were really riding fast. I knew I was having a good day and I wasn’t yet on my limit. But still, at that point, I felt as though there were guys stronger than me in the group. But as the climb continued I sensed that everyone was on their limit and yet I felt that I still had the strength for another attack. So I took my chance!
PELOTON: With nearly 10 victories in only your first two years as a professional, you are one of the fastest-rising stars in French cycling. How do you deal with your impressive progress? In many ways, it is a huge learning curve!
Calmejane: It’s true that everything has happened really quickly since I turned pro. But I turned professional late, at 23, so I think I came into the pros with a bit more maturity than some riders. And I think that helped me. Both physically and mentally, I was more ready to make the jump to the pros, and there is a really big step between the amateur and pro ranks. But because I turned professional later than many the results perhaps came a bit sooner.
PELOTON: Already you are considered a team leader on your Direct Energie team, something that is even more the case now that Thomas Voeckler has retired and house sprinter Bryan Coquard has left the team. [Coquard has joined Team Vital Concept.] There is obviously a lot more responsibility, but you seem to handle it well….
Calmejane: Well, it is an amazing opportunity to be given the responsibility of team leader after only two years as a professional. But it is exciting and I do feel like I can help take the team higher. To be honest, it is something I am looking forward to. Since I was a kid, I’ve always enjoyed being the leader of a group, someone that pushes people further. But I know that I have to have the results to back it up. I rider that is a leader in spirit but doesn’t have the legs for it never gets very far.
PELOTON: Well, having experienced riders like Thomas Voeckler or Sylvain Chavanel on your team this year must have helped. Have you been able to work closely with them? Have you been able to learn from them?
Calmejane: Oh, absolutely! I’ve learned from both Thomas and Sylvain. Our relationships are different, but both have helped me greatly. Thomas really took me under his wing in an almost paternal way. He gave me not only technical advice, but also advice about how to manage my season or my career. Sylvain has helped me too, perhaps mostly in his attitude and perspective. He has years of experience and yet he is still like a neo-pro in his head. He is still so fresh and energetic when it comes to racing. It’s just incredible. But you know Sylvain is just so strong physically that he never finishes a race completely exhausted. He might not have that little extra thing it takes to make the difference in a race today. But he is always there and he doesn’t really suffer in a race like some guys do. As a result, he hasn’t been beaten down by the racing over the years. So he is still fresh like a neo-pro, always smiling, always ready to go.
PELOTON: A neo-pro contract is for two years and you just finished it, so now you are no longer officially a debutant. How do you see your career evolving now? What do you hope to achieve in the coming years?
Calmejane: Well, I have a new contract with Direct Energie for another two years, so I really want to learn and discover my abilities as a leader. I’ve had some glimpses of what that is like, but I want to be able to confirm what I have shown. I think, in the next two years, I will really see just what kind of a rider I can be, what kind of races I can win and which great races I might be able to win one day.
PELOTON: And what are the races that inspire you the most, or at least the ones that you think you can shine in?
Calmejane: Well, there are classics like Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Tour of Lombardy, and then there are shorter stage races like Paris–Nice or the Dauphiné where I think I could really do something. You have to arrive at those races at 100 percent but, at my best, yeah, I think I can do something in such races.
JAMES STARTT has photographed and written about the sport of cycling for more than 25 years. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as Vanity Fair, The New York Times, LeMonde, Bicycling and Rouleur Magazine, and he has published several books on the sport including “Tour de France/Tour de Force” (Chronicle Books), the first “English history of the Tour de France” and “Shut Up Legs” (Rodale), the Jens Voigt autobiography. Meanwhile Startt’s photography is represented by the Galerie Agathe Gaillard, the oldest photography gallery in France. Startt began working with PELOTON magazine in 2015 and has been the European Associate since 2016.