Professional cyclists always look forward to the off-season because it provides a rare opportunity to recharge one’s batteries after months of hard training and even harder racing. Some head off to faraway islands. Others enjoy an extended period at home. But for a select group of others it is a chance to trade in their cycling shoes for soccer cleats and hit the field in what has become an increasingly popular tradition: a soccer friendly. Organized by cycling monthly Vélo Magazine, French cyclists and their professional counterparts from around the world come together for Le Grand Match, an event that has met with growing success.

Words & Images: James Startt, European Associate to Peloton

As tradition would have it for the past three years, the cyclists meet one Sunday each autumn, replacing their trade team kits for soccer uniforms to get a rare taste of a very different sport.

The Stade Charles Sage in Drancy, a northern suburb of Paris, is modest to say the least and there is none of the fanfare these cyclists are accustomed to at WorldTour races. But soon enough the participants are quickly initiated into the customs of a different team sport.

This year’s foreign team, led by Italy’s Filippo Pozzato and Belgium’s Tiesj Benoot, was equipped in distinctive red jerseys and shorts, while the French squad, led by Thibaut Pinot, Bryan Coquard and Tony Gallopin, suited up in contrasting blue outfits.

Retired pro Jérôme Pineau coached the French team. Many claimed he was the only participant with serious soccer chops. And he confirmed it, coming on late in the game to score three goals.

Everyone met in the morning for an initial warm-up. But it soon became clear that, for many, the period would be used as a crash course in the rules of the game. “I’ve got to be the only Italian that never played soccer,” said Pozzato. “I’m supposed to be the team captain but I may have to do it while playing.” Then, adding with a laugh, he said, “To make matters worse, by the looks of it, the French team actually knows how to play!”

While Pozzato was admittedly one of the least experienced, many participants had played as kids and followed the sport closely. “I come from a real cycling family, but they still let me play soccer before putting me on a bike,” said Gallopin, who admitted that he was cramping already during warm-up! “That said, I must not have been very promising because no one tried to keep me on the team. Fortunately I liked cycling.”

“I was always playing soccer with my friends after school and I’m still a big fan” said Pinot, who many considered one of the only real talents on this day. But while none of the cyclists pretended to possess any real potential on the soccer pitch, they came ready to play. “We’re all competitors here,” said Pinot. “We do want to win.”

For Kevin Reza (left) and Tony Gallopin (right) the pre-match buffet was one of the highlights of the day as it provided a rare moment for riders to reconnect after a long season.

With the warm-up over, these pseudo soccer players all sat down together for a buffet-style lunch. Servings were generous, and on this occasion at least there seemed to be no dietary restrictions. Generous portions of French cheeses could be found instead of the more common gluten- and dairy-free rations common at so many team hotels today. Meanwhile, Pozzato served up generous portions of French wine to his teammates, perhaps in an effort to relax his squad after their lackluster warm-up. And then, after a round of chicory coffee, the two teams retired to their locker rooms for final preparations.

Leaving no detail overlooked, Vélo Magazine had a local child accompany each player onto the field for the official team presentation. And soon enough it was kick-off time.

Looking momentarily somewhat professional, Filippo Pozzato (left) and Christophe Riblon (right) prepare to lead their teams on the field.

“Okay guys, technically we are at a disadvantage so we’ll have to start by really pressing and just see how long we last,” Pozzato could be heard saying before taking the field. Famous last words many thought.

For an Italian with no soccer experience, “Captain Pipo” did a formidable job keeping the foreign team in the game throughout the first quarter. The apparent pressing worked wonders and held the French at bay. And it was only near the end of the first half that Cofidis rider Yoann Bagot connected to give the French their first goal.

But while the score remained close at halftime, the foreign players were showing their first signs of cracking. “The score may be close, but we are exhausted,” Pozzato confided into the announcer’s microphone so that the entire stadium understood.

Unfortunately for Pozzato and his loose-knit band of aspirants, the locker room would offer little reprise. Almost from the moment they took to the field for the second half, the floodgates opened. Without the strength to maintain their initial pressing, they were overwhelmed by the French, scoring one goal after another. And adding salt to the wound, retired cyclist Pinot—who will manage the new Vital Concept team in 2018—left his coaching duties on the sidelines and immediately scored three goals midway through the second half. By the game’s end, the score was a lopsided 7-1 in favor of the French.

For French climber Thibaut Pinot, like everyone here, having fun was the overwhelming priority of Le Grand Match.

Yet despite the blowout, there was little sign of disappointment. And in all fairness the French demonstrated no signs of celebration after their victory. Everyone it seemed understood that the overall level of play on this day was barely fit for a Saturday club match. Nevertheless there were plenty of smiles to go around.

“That was fun!” said second-year pro Lilian Calmejane, winner of a memorable stage in this summer’s Tour de France. “What a great way to spend some time with your friends outside of cycling. But we’re going to feel it tomorrow, because we used a lot of muscles we don’t normally use. It’s a good fatigue though!”

Handshakes and warm embraces continued, and the winners even received a symbolic trophy, although no one was really sure who it belonged to, since there is no clubhouse for such an ephemeral organization. Local fans eventually made their way down to the field for an impromptu autograph session before the participants hit the showers as they prepared to head home. But first there was time for one more buffet, and one last round of wine, cheese and chicory.