INTERVIEW: WARREN BARGUIL
Once the great young hope of the French, the Breton rider will target stage wins in 2017
Warren Barguil won two stages of the Vuelta as a first year pro in 2013. The only rider to have since equalled, and admittedly bettered that achievement is Fernando Gaviria, who took three WorldTour wins in 2016. But Barguil’s bald results don’t do justice to his swashbuckling verve in Spain that year. Despite the expectations that accompanied the previous year’s Tour de l’Avenir winner, he finished in the top 10 twice in the first 10 days. On stage 13 he infiltrated a strong break and attacked the remnants in the final kilometre to win. Three days later and full of bravado, he made another break and helped push the escape to the final climb to Formigal. At the bottom he attacked and rode up alone for more than 9km. He was joined by a more experienced fugitive, Sky’s Rigoberto Urán, inside the final kilometre. The rookie was wise to the Colombian’s immediate attack, jumped on his wheel and won.
In 2014, many expected Barguil to make his Tour debut, but Argos-Shimano built a sprint train for Marcel Kittel and there was no space. Disgruntled but undaunted, he returned to the Vuelta to test his GC credentials. He had a hard crash on stage 7, did several shifts for sprinter John Degenkolb and collided with the team car from Cannondale, leaving himself with a sore and swollen knee, on stage 19. After all that he still came eighth overall, aged 22. Considering the field that year – Contador, Rodríguez, Aru and Froome among them, all there and in form – it was an impressive result. Plus, he was able to land a few attacks of his own late in the third week. “To be constantly concentrating during a three-week race takes a really big effort,” he said when Procycling asked which of the two very different Vuelta experiences gave him the most satisfaction. “For some riders the victory is the most important thing, but for me, when you are top 10 in a Grand Tour it is such a big
achievement. To be that focused for 21 days is a real effort and I was proud of myself to make the top 10 in that Vuelta.”
You might assume that GC is what stirs Barguil now. Ever since 2013, he’s mostly been riding stage races for the overall. He was 14th in his Tour debut in 2015. His high water mark came last year when he wore the leader’s jersey and finished on the podium of a particularly weather-beaten Tour de Suisse – he seems to thrive in hard conditions, which he puts down to an uncompromising streak: “I’m a Breton, we have a hard character,” he smiled. That was his first WorldTour GC podium. “It was a good race for me and I never imagined I would be on the podium,” he said.
The result made him a touch overexuberant ahead of his principal target of a top-10 finish and a run at the white jersey in the following month’s Tour. He pushed his interim training too hard and arrived in the Manche for the start “cracked,” he said. Unable to recover in time for the mountains, his ambitions were soon scaled back and he finished 23rd, with barely a foray off the front.
Barguil hasn’t won a race since that heady 2013 Vuelta. And he feels it acutely. “I miss the feeling of winning,” he has said. There are some mitigating circumstances. Illness and accidents to name but two. The most notorious was when he was hit head-on by a car on the wrong side of the road, along with five team-mates, during a pre-season training camp in January 2016. It could have been so much worse. He described the fact that he was still racing as a miracle. He bounced back and got strong results in the hilly Classics: ninth at Flèche, sixth at Liège. In 2015, he crashed hard on the Tour stage at La Pierre SaintMartin and he finished the race with a fractured knee. Last year he abandoned the Vuelta on stage 3 with sinusitis. This year, he was ruled out of Milan-San Remo with an ankle injury, but again came back strongly, posting sixth at Flèche. Then the curse of Barguil struck again and he fractured his pelvis in a crash in the Tour de Romandie on a sodden second stage, returning at the Dauphiné
At 25, ‘Wawa’ as he’s known, could happily press on as a GC option for Sunweb. There are surely untapped depths still to explore, but instead he wants to rediscover the winning sensation and show that the flashy, attacking flair which greeted his arrival hasn’t been blunted by a lot of racing for the overall.
“I don’t race so much with panache because of my focus on the GC and I miss that,” he said. “So now, I will have more races in my programme that I can race like that first Vuelta where I go to win stages. That’s going to be goal at the Tour,” he said with emphasis.
The GC imperative may have suppressed the attacking instinct, but when we met Barguil at País Vasco, it was obvious that the thrill of attacking still burns within and he’s looking forward to spending more time off the front of the bunch.
As Barguil looks to emulate the acts of Alberto Contador (see left), he believes the peloton is now in a more conducive mood for enterprising racing.
“Look at the last few races,” he said. “In Milan-San Remo we said for sure it will be a big sprint and it was not. In Paris-Nice, Contador goes on the attack and almost wins...” We interjected with a mention of Philippe Gilbert’s 55km solo the day before at the Tour of Flanders. “For sure,” he agreed. “It’s got really interesting because now someone can go from 60km and they make it. That makes everyone think they can do something similar and win.
“It just feels different. It’s like nobody is happy with second or third any more. Everybody wants to win. Everybody’s attacking and not thinking ‘I have team-mates who can control it.’”
Barguil thinks that one of the main reasons for this new attacking impetus in the big races is that there’s less emphasis on the importance of WorldTour points, since the UCI’s universal ranking system took precedence at the start of the season. The previous system meant decent-to-good results carried a lot of points, which meant riders defended high positions rather than risking everything for the win.
And as he surveys the peloton, the Frenchman feels that he is getting to know the culprits likely to attack. “Take today,” he said of the first stage of the Basque Country. “I was sure Tim Wellens would attack, 100 per cent sure. I knew why and when it would happen. I just had this feeling. And take last year in this race: the Dimension Data guy, Steve Cummings. I was with my team-mate Sam Oomen and I said to him, ‘Stay in the wheel of Cummings because for sure he’s going to attack.’ Sam didn’t and Cummings attacked and won. Somehow you just get to know the rider, what they are like and when they want to attack. It’s easier when you know your adversary.” In 2013 Barguil was the junior member of French stage racing’s big three, together with Ag2r’s Romain Bardet and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot. As well as being more than a year younger than the other two, he admitted that racing for a foreign team helped him avoid some of the pressure Pinot and Bardet faced in riding for French teams. It’s also given Barguil the space in which to get used to the expectation of leadership. “I really feel I am becoming more and more of a leader, to speak during the meeting and able to motivate the guys. It’s totally different to two years ago,” he said.
Quite where Barguil fits in the grand scheme of French cycling now is difficult to say. Since 2013, when France appeared to have three exciting stage racers in development, Barguil hasn’t yet hit the same high notes as Bardet and Pinot, particularly at the Tour. The older pair have both finished on the podium, and Pinot particularly blossomed at the Giro d’Italia this year, coming fourth, less than 90 seconds from the pink jersey. More urgently, there are greener shoots beneath, like Quick-Step Floors rider Julian Alaphilippe and FDJ’s David Gaudu. But perhaps this year’s Tour de France route, filled as it is with traps and opportunities for the tactically proficient, will play to his strengths and remind fans of the attacking flair that was Barguil’s calling card when he first arrived on the scene.
It just feels different. It’s like nobody is happy with second or third any more. Everybody wants to win
In the wars: Wawa has su fered from more than his fair share of crashes and bad luck
Barguil took not one but two stages at his debut Vuelta a España in 2013
Barguil plans to ride an attacking Tour, and will hope to shine in the hilly stages which suit him