My old buddy Dave Franey used to always preface the many favors he asked me with ‘Help a fellow Canadian down on his luck?’. This is sort of how I felt yesterday morning when messaging Antoine Duchesne for an interview – and thankfully he’s a kind Canuck, and he accepted graciously, ‘after my massage’. And so it came to pass that The Vicious Cycle Blog had its first pro cyclist interview…after his massage.
Antoine Duchesne is a 24 year old in his 5th year as a pro. He started in Canada, of course, riding for teams run by Steve Bauer, Louis Garneau and Axel Merckx (a transplanted Canadian) and has been with Direct Energie (formally Europcar) since 2014. He is a big guy for a cyclist (190 cm – 75 kg) and although I never asked him, I imagine he’d consider himself a Classics specialist.
Below is the result of a most enjoyable and informative hour I spent with Antoine at the Hemingway Bar (‘yeah, we drink alcohol’) inside the lobby of the Imperator Hotel in Nîmes.
You grew up north of Quebec City. The season isn’t very long. What got you interested in cycling?
I wasn’t really interested in cycling as a kid. I was playing basketball, baseball, snowboarding, dirt jumping. My older sister was doing the same thing as me, trying different sports, and one summer she got into the local cycling club, Acidose Lactique, from our region, and at that time I was really into basketball and trying to get into the regional team. I didn’t make the team and started going to see my sister race and thought that looks fun. The last local race of the season somebody gave me a little bike and I really loved it. And the next year I got into the club too with a $200 bike of 30 lbs and it was shit. I got dropped by girls, bad, for the first 2 years.
How old were you at this time?
I was something like 14. I was a really late bloomer. When I was 15 I grew like a foot. When I was in secondary 3rd I was 5 foot and in secondary 4th I was 6!
How about role models? When I was growing up it was Steve Bauer, and basically nobody else.
I rode stagiare on his (Bauer’s) team before it folded…but me, I never really had any role models. When I started there weren’t any races on TV. When I started it was the first year the Tour was on Canada Evasion in Quebec. And I didn’t really watch it till the 2nd year. I was never really a cycling geek. I didn’t know Ryder Hesjedal, Michael Barry or Svein Tuft and then it was like hey, there are Canadians on the World Tour…after 3 years of riding!
We had a lot of really strong guys from the region but at a smaller lever. We had Raphael Tremblay and a lot of guys who were the best in Canada at the Junior level, and at 14, for me, that was huge, and for me those guys were bigger role models than like, Jens Voigt, and those guys. To me I never adored other guys and thought I’d like to be them. I always kind of did my thing and do what I wanted to do and do what I had to do to do what I want.
When did you get your big break?
Well, one year I did the Tour de l’Abitibi, which has been going for something like 45 years and it was one of the biggest stage races for Juniors in the world. It was UCI and the 2 years I did it it was Nations Cup. Arnaud Démare was there and won stages, you had Denis Menchov back in the day, Dave Zabriskie, Nate Brown, a lot of good Americans. I think Thor Hushovd went there. It was one of the only 7-stage races in the world for Juniors and the first year I went there I did well and the French national team was there and I got along with them because I talk a lot, they were French, I was French, I wasn’t speaking a word of English my first year. My first year of Juniors I was with the (Canadian) national team and I was the only Quebe (Quebecois) and I couldn’t say a thing in English! I’m from Saguenay and nobody speaks English over there. My mom did a little bit, but nobody, even the teachers sucked! I was good in my English class and then I moved to Montreal in my senior year and I was failing every class. I couldn’t say shit!
So this particular time, the Tour de l’Abitibi, pissed me off a lot because we were all living in a classroom and I want to have fun, and want to laugh but I don’t know what you guys are talking about and cannot say what I want to say, so I decided then that I had to learn it for real.
In the fall I was chatting with a friend from the French national team and asked if I could like talk to your manager and see if I could come race for you guys next year, and I started emailing the manager and he was like sure, we’ll pay your flight and you live here and we give you a bike, so I came here in February, when I was 17 years old, and never been to Europe, never even talked to the guy on the phone. It was like ‘take this, take that train, go to Lille, and somebody’s going to pick you up there’.
Did you live with a family when you raced the winters in Belgium?
I stayed with our soigneur’s family in his basement. After that, when I was coming over, the national team has a big base in Tielt-Winge, in Flanders, just south of Leuven, and I would stay with the soigneur, a Belgian guy who’s worked for the national team for 10 years, and he became a kind of dad to me.
I was training in the US in January, then I’d go back to Canada and then to Belgium and do some kermesses before the national team project started, so I had a little step ahead instead of just coming over and having your first race the Tour of Flanders.
Since you came to Europe have you raced much back home in Canada?
Well yeah, in U23 I was always with the Louis Garneau Development Team so I was coming (to Europe) until April then the races started in April. I was racing in Quebec and I did some racing in the US, like the Joe Martin and stuff like that. I was racing in the Tour de Beauce, Coupe des Nations Saguenay, some races in Vermont in May, then the Nationals then a break, then start over in August, doing some races here.
Europcar has signed a few Canadians in the past, including you. Is there any connection there?
(David) Veilleux spoke about me and well, when I signed I was 2-time U23 National Champion and started racing well in the world and they saw me at the Gran Prix Quebec and we started talking and talked for several months and I ended up signing with them.
Tyler Hamilton says in his book (The Secret Race) that it was a massive culture shock coming over to Europe because everyone was so much faster. Did you experience anything like this?
Those guys raced in the US and the American style is much different from here. The mentality, the way the riders ride, the roads. It’s really different. But me, I kind of learned my cycling in Europe, so I knew how the cobbles were, how the culture was, all of it.
So yeah, when I turned pro it was faster, but I wasn’t surprised. I mean the first World Tour race I did was Quebec and Montreal and I was riding for Garneau on the U23 team – finished it – and my 3rd year I did a stagiaire with SpiderTech and we did .1 and .HC races, so I already knew what it would look like. And I raced all year with Axel Merck’s Bontrager Team – the Livestrong team – I raced my last year of U23 with them. We raced in Portugal, where we won the tour, then the Nations’ Cup and some kermisses and that kind of stuff with the national team. Then came back to the US, did a high-altitude training camp. We did the Tour of California, Tour de Beauce, Coupe des Nations, then I did the Tour of Colorado, Tour of Alberta, Quebec and Montreal, World Championships, and then I signed with Europcar. So when I signed with Europcar I already had some Pro Tour experience like the Tour of Colorado and California where there’s like 5 or 6 World Tour teams.
You’ve been on the podium twice in the last two years in the Polynormande. Is this a course that suits you?
I don’t know. I just played my cards well the last two years. The two years I did the Tour of Wallonie just before and it’s hard Belgian-style racing, so I was always in kind of good condition and made the early break and the break went to the end.
Will you go back this year?
I don’t know. All depends on if I ride the Tour…
What is your greatest achievement in your career to this point?
I’m really happy with the World Championships last year because I feel like I had a huge improvement, the whole year. In the past when I did races like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, after like 200 km or 220 km, even if I was feeling super good (at the start), I was feeling like I was done. And this year after 220 km I was still following attacks and trying to get in moves and this year we were like 60 guys and I got dropped on the last climb where Sagan attacked. So with 2 km to go I was still in the main group. And that was after 30,000 km and 80 races, so that showed me that I can go through a full-on season and still make it. So for this year’s Classics I feel more confident and I know I’ll be able to be more there in the last 50 kms.
Do you know which Classics you’ll be doing?
All the Flanders, so I’ll be doing Het Volk and Kuurne in 3 weeks and after that we don’t know the team yet, but I might do Paris-Nice again, but it’s not sure yet. After that it’s Wevelgem, E3, 3 Day La Panne, Flanders, Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix. And I might do Amstel but I don’t know. Then stop for 3 weeks and go back to Canada and start again with California. I’m very happy to go back there.
LIVING IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE
I’ve discovered that you get kind of babied down here because of the weather. Do you find this yourself? Do you head out when there’s a threat of rain?
Well, I learned cycling in Belgium basically for 5 years. My last year of Juniors I was racing in Nord-Pas-de-Calais with Arnaud Démare and Adrien Petit was in that team the year before. I never raced with him because he was a year older, but I was just after him. My 4th year of U23 I was racing up in Belgium 4 months of the year; all winter, for the World Cup and that kind of stuff.
How long have been living down here?
This is my 2nd year. Hugo (Houle), my roommate, has been here for 3 years. He was living – he is with AG2R – he was living with a friend in Grenoble, and this guy moved here 3 years ago and I came down for 3 days in the summer and thought this place is kind of cool, then the apartment next to him came up and it was easy. We knew it was good, we knew someone there, so we booked it. Now I don’t want to live anywhere else. I ride for 6 hours, I don’t see a traffic light!
Do you ever get into the Cevennes?
Yeah, but it’s a pretty shitty ride for me. I’m kind of on the border of the Gorges de l’Ardeche and then the mountains, so to get to Uzès and back it’s a full-on headwind. On my rides I like to be hidden from the wind as much as I can.
I go a lot around Dieulefit and deeper in those mountains. I really love a loop around the Montelimar area on the small roads and start climbing around Le Pont d’Arc and come back on the Gorges de l’Ardeche road. It’s like a four and a half hour ride. It’s a really nice loop and I have 2500 meters of climbing and I don’t see a car. It’s really nice. And it’s always sunny!
I know you’re really into wine and that you’re thinking about becoming a sommelier. Can you do that and be a pro at the same time?
Well, I’m in for the class for next year at Suze la Rousse, but at the moment I’m kind of talking to them because it’s 4 months full time, from mid October to mid January, so I’m good to go the first two months, but I can’t go 35 hours a week the last two – there are training camps and all that stuff. I’m trying to figure out a way to do it.
This year I worked on my off days in a vineyard in Rasteau. It’s an amazing guy. He only has 15 acres and it’s a guy working by himself. He’s 42 years old and has been doing this for 20 years, but he’s been 40 years in the vines basically, because his father and grandfather had the vineyard before but they were giving it to the co-op and he’s the first in the family, from 1996, to make the wine. It’s too bad…yesterday I brought two magnums for the guys to taste!
If you could do any one set of intervals, what would it be?
30 seconds on, 30 seconds off. You go a little over Threshold and do this for 15 minutes. Do 3 sets of that. I used to do these full on, but then you can only do one set properly. When you do 15 minutes pacing you do 30 seconds at like 115%, then pedal normally, so you’re able to do 15 minutes.
So that 3 sets, so 7.5 minutes over Threshold (each set), so that’s 22 minutes over Threshold – at the end of the day that’s a good workout.
I don’t do this often but I think it’s great training. I do them mainly at home in Canada on the trainer. This is the kind of training I do a lot – like 20-40, 40-20, 30-30. When I’m on the trainer this is kind of training I do.
I’m not really a technical guy. I train kind of old school. I used to train differently – doing the exact rep and the exact rest and go exactly 5 minutes and do this. I ride 5 hours every day. I mean even if I ride intervals I ride 5 or 6 hours; I don’t ride just a 2-hour interval. Basically if I go out for training it’s never under 4 hours.
Now I love riding my bike. If I know I have minute intervals to do and this loop has a bunch of rollers that basically are a minute – minute and a half up, and a minute – two minutes down. So every time I go up those climbs I go full gas. Even in a race it’s never exactly the same rest, so I don’t really believe in that. If my coach tells me I have to do 10 times 2 minutes today I go on a loop and when I’m on a climb and I know that this climb is this long and I can do 2 x 2 minutes on this climb, so you have to do your 2 minutes at 500 watts – ok go!
So you’re kind of following what your coach says…
Sort of, but you don’t feel like it! And then if the next climb is in an hour, I’m just going to ride for an hour. And if I have a headwind I’m going to do a 30 min pace in this headwind. If I have a nice tailwind I’m going to do a drill. I just play with the weather and terrain. Every day you’re working on something specific but it doesn’t feel like it. Every day you’re riding in vineyards and climbing mountains – it’s nice!
You live near Mont Ventoux. What’s your best time?
I’ve never done bottom to top full gas. It’s like an hour forty five just to get there, and I have two climbs to get there, so if I do an hour full gas I’m completely fucked, then I’ve got 2 hours back and there’s usually a headwind. I usually do 2 x 20 minutes and rest in between…I mean ‘rest’, you’re still climbing it…or sometimes 3 x 10 minutes. I’m going to do it one day just for fun and to see my time, but for training it’s kind of useless for me.
Because you’re not a climber?
No, even climbers. It’s an hour fifteen full gas to do it, basically. It’s hard to keep it up – if you’re not in a race and by yourself it’s kind of hard to push yourself, so it’s kind of hard to say my numbers are ‘this’ because in a race you can do much more.
STRAVA AND ‘NUMBERS’
I use it but I don’t look at it much. I put stuff up there because I know people like it. Sometimes I check my average after training or a race, but that’s pretty much it. I never had good numbers, so I think that’s why I don’t like to look at it! So if I compare myself I always have shitty numbers, but I always beat guys that have bigger numbers than me! I race with my heart and my head and my balls, not my numbers.
Like yesterday I was looking at it a little bit because I pulled on the front all day, so it’s kind of good to – I know I had 130 km to pull on the front, and I know I had about 15 minute pulls and I know I can do 400 watts and then rest, so you’re able to pace yourself like that to be able to do it all day, not do a pull full gas and you’re fucked.
How do you guys decide how long you take turns on the front?
You know you don’t want to blow yourself up and you know you don’t want to do too short a pull because you’re only 2 guys and the other guy needs to rest, too, so when you’re two guys, basically you do 10 -20 minute pulls.
You have two of the most beloved and successful French riders on your team (Thomas Voeckler and Sylvain Chavanel). What are you learning from these guys?
On the bike I’m learning a lot, but off the bike, I went to Thomas’ house and met his family, his children; he’s like a friend. And Sylvain, he’s like a neo-pro at the moment. He’s super excited – at La Marseillaise there were the 5 newest guys on the team and Sylvain and he was more excited than the 20 year old guys!
Because of the team change?
He just loves riding his bike and he’s always excited. It’s really cool to be around them.
And then the 7-time French National Champion and overall leader of the Etoile de Bessèges himself walked by to the dining room and Antoine Dechesne excused himself to carb up with the team for his 400 watt pulls tomorrow.
So thanks, Antoine, for helping a fellow Canadian down on his luck, and good luck with your next 25,000 km this year!