What is panache?
Merriam-Webster describes panache as ‘dash or flamboyance in style and action’.
The word panache is often used in cycling to describe daring attacks that succeed almost against all odds. Sylvain Chavanel of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step is one of those riders whose style of racing fits that description. Though often reeled in before the finish line, when his attacks work, they can be spectacular to watch.
A pro since 2000, Chavanel has three Tour de France victories on his palmares, one in 2008 and two in 2010; those same two years, he was named the Most Aggressive Racer at the Tour.
What drives the 33-year Frenchman to attack so often?
“What makes me attack?” he mused to podiuminsight. “First I’m bored in a pack so I don’t like when it rolls and rolls quietly for hours and hours. I need action, even if I’m at the maximum, I prefer to go in the red and attack, attack, but not to attack at any time but to attack at the right time, on the uphills, not far from the arrival, and after that when it feels right.”
Like all racers, he studies the course profile but then he lets his legs decide if he should go. “During the action, if the legs are present and all that then I’m good to go, if I don’t have the legs I don’t try. But when I am good, I have to try something because I’m not a fast sprinter, I’m not one of the best rouleurs in the peloton, I’m not a climber, I’m good everywhere so it is necessary that I do something to be at the front.”
Chavanel displayed panache and legs on his stage victory at the 2010 Tour de France. On the fourth hill of stage 7, sensing that this was the move of the day, he went off in hot pursuit to a group of chasers after the main field shattered.
“The first thing is to go get your competitors because the one thing that is important for a racer is to go get that stage victory, so you have to get the racers ahead of you. I had great legs so I attacked a first time, it came back, they looked at each other and the peloton wasn’t very far behind.” he explained.
He quickly made his way across to the group and when the pace slackened off, Chavanel took off again on the final climb. After bridging up to and then dropping the lone rider that remained from the early break, an exuberant Chavanel claimed the win and the yellow jersey.
“I wasn’t thinking of the yellow jersey, I was only thinking of the stage win but the it felt right, the road goes up a little bit, everyone is at their max, bam I attacked and I’m all alone. I am all alone with my bike and now it’s going all out to the finish.”
Not all his victories have come from solo attacks or breaks. Back in March, Chavanel claimed his third Paris-Nice victory, taking the sprint from a 60-rider front group which included world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) on stage 6.
“That is one of those victories where I won in front of a group, we can say in a sprint so I’m satisfied with what I did but it’s the same, it was about being fresh. It was a difficult stage so all the riders were completely spent, even I was but still the freshest rider wins. But in fact, when I’m good somewhere, I can be good everywhere. When I really have the best condition, I can be good everywhere.”
“Bike racing comes down to little things. Some times, you search for the victory and it doesn’t come, other times you make one decision, bam, it comes and you don’t know how. This is a very high level of cycling, it’s very tight, the speeds are high and it doesn’t take much to get get the victory.”
The reverse hold true also. “I lost a lot of wins so close to the finish line, I was caught with one kilometer to go, two kilometers to go. How many stages at the Tour de France was I reeled back in with one kilometer to go? A lot of stages, so it comes down to little things.”
Though his victories have often been full of panache, Channel’s attacks have more than often been unsuccessful. One of those was at Milan-San Remo this year when his two-man break was caught after cresting the Poggio. He ultimately finished fourth.
“Hindsight is 20-20”. a philosophical Chavanel simply said.
“I prefer to be a rider like I am than to be a racer that waits, wait and waits, bam wins and then you don’t hear anything from him. Me, I’m there all year, I’m not at my top level all year but I’m at a good level.”
And he has no plans on changing his style of racing, a style that he says has stayed the same for his whole career. “This is was what will make me last in cycling. This is my 14th year professional, it’s already a lot even if I look young.” he laughed.
As for the Amgen Tour of California, his first goal was to get the form back to shine at the Dauphiné Libéré, the Tour de France and then the French National Championships, and if the legs are there, to go on the attack.
And the three-time and reigning French National time trial champion also has circled today’s stage. “I am the champion of France and I want to do well on that stage.”