The world’s best will be in the U.S. next month at the Waterloo and Jingle Cross World Cups. One of the Europeans who will be making the trip is France’s Steve Chainel. However, this year, the charismatic “retired” cyclocross racer will have a new look. For the latest in our #crossiscoming series, we look at Chainel’s French National Championship that was over a decade in the making.
Thirteen years. Thirteen years is a long time to wait for anything, but after one muddy day in January, every minute of that wait became worth it for France’s Steve Chainel.
Chainel has accomplished a lot during his career as a cyclist. He raced professionally on the road for a decade before retiring in 2015 and now continues to race cyclocross in “retirement” for the Chazal Canyon cyclocross team.
However, up until 2018, a French cyclocross national championship had eluded him.
That changed this January when Chainel captured his first national championship in Quelneuc, France. It was a title 13 years in the making.
“It was so long, yes!” Chainel said about the wait. “I’ve had a very nice professional career, but when I was young, under 19, my only objective was to be the French cyclocross champion, not a professional on the road.”
A Long Time Coming
Chainel’s journey to win the Elite French Nationals started in 2006, where he finished fourth. After just missing out on the podium, he thought his turn would come soon. “When you finish fourth at Nationals, all the fans and sponsors are then waiting for you to improve,” Chainel said.
A big part of why it took Chainel so long to reach his goal is his career has coincided with that of Francis Mourey. Three years Chainel’s senior, Mourey first won French Nationals in 2005 and then went on to win eight times during Chainel’s time as an Elite. Chainel has come close to beating his rival in the past, but he was never able to get past him to the top step of the French podium. Perhaps it is fitting that in 2018, Mourey finished second behind Chainel in Quelneuc.
When Chainel won on Day 1 of the 2016 Trek CXC Cup in Wisconsin, he joked that he was “retired” from bike racing. For Chainel, retiring has meant turning his focus from being a professional road racer to racing cyclocross and contributing as a commentator for Eurosport.
His role also changed in 2017 when his Chazal Canyon team was elevated to UCI team status. As one of the elder statesmen on his team along with his wife Lucie, he now feels invested in the success of the team’s younger riders.
“During the winter, I’m so focused on the French Championships,” Chainel said. “For my team and sponsors, it is the most important race. But particularly this year because we a UCI team and it’s important to do well. During the race, I had a very nice feeling on my bike. My young teammates in the U23s were disappointed after their race. I would like to change that!”
Chainel’s win at French Nationals means he will have a new look when he rolls into Waterloo in September. The week after French Nationals was the Nommay World Cup. It was the perfect venue to unveil his new colors.
“It was Friday just before Nommay when I received my jersey and new Canyon bike with the French Tricolours,” Chainel said. “It was a very nice surprise from Canyon. They wrote my kids’ names on the bike. I’m a patriot, I love those colors. So during the weekend, during the Nommay World Cup, I was so happy.”
Other athletes have said national champion’s jerseys can give them super powers. That very well may be true because Chainel turned in two special races to close out the season while wearing his new French Tricolour kit.
Chainel finished 9th at the Nommay World Cup, topping his previous season-best finish of 12th at World Cup Waterloo. He then went on to finish 10th at the muddy, hilly World Championships in Valkenburg-Limburg. That finish was his best at Worlds since finishing 9th in 2009.
“The World Championship was so hard,” said Chainel. “Very hard. But in my head, my season was perfect, so Worlds was a bonus. Physically I was so good, but at the end of the race, I was pretty exhausted mentally.”
Back to the States in 2018
Even though the U.S. World Cups are more relaxed than their European cousins, there is still a sense of seriousness for many of the European riders who make the trip, especially those on the big teams.
In a way, Chainel stands out against that backdrop. Without the pressures of being a full-time bike racer, racing ’cross is now gravy for him. Oh, and he loves coming to America. In fact, when I chatted with him earlier this year, he was in New York for vacation.
“I’m in New York with my brother for five days,” he said. I love this city. It’s my fourth trip here, the atmosphere is so good. I saw an NHL match, NBA match and Broadway show with the Blue Man Group. This city is just amazing!”
Chainel’s love of the States includes racing really well. His second trip to the U.S. was in 2016 and he made quite the big splash in his first post-retirement races. The Telenet-Fidea team and Wout van Aert stopped over at the Trek CXC Cup before the CrossVegas and Jingle Cross World Cups.
During Saturday’s C2 race, Chainel beat the entire Telenet-Fidea team. Literally, the entire team. We still refer to it as the “Steve Chainel race” here in Wisconsin.
In 2017, he finished second during the Saturday night C2 at Jingle Cross, and then the next week went on to finish 12th at World Cup Waterloo. In his post-race interview in Iowa City, he talked about still feeling 20 while riding his bike.
Chainel said he’s looking forward to heading to Waterloo and Iowa City again this fall. “My season will start in the U.S., of course,” he said. The two World Cups in Waterloo and Iowa are very important. Cyclocross is not only a European sport, and I think it’s important to come to the U.S. for sponsors, riders and of course, for cyclocross.”
When we spoke, the Olympics were also on his mind. “Now it’s the Olympic Games, and if we want to have cyclocross in the Olympics, it’s a dream, it’s very important to have races all over the planet and not just in Belgium and the Netherlands,” he said. “A lot of countries are interested in organizing a World Cup, and I hope in the future, why not have a World Cup in Africa, Oceania and Asia?”
After his dream season in 2017/18, Chainel has a tough act to follow for himself. However, with the French Tricolour on his kit and bike, it is hard to not expect some more special races from the French National Champion. Even if he does not, you know Chainel will enjoy his time here in the States and his opportunities to race cyclocross and help the sport grow internationally.
And you can guarantee he is going to work his hardest to keep that French Tricolour kit for another year. After all, it took a few years to earn the first one.