Hung Up in Picardy, Hoping for Bigger Things

COMPIEGNE, France: Vincent Lavenu smiled at one and all, shook any hand in reach, turned appropriately solemn to discuss his team's prospects in the Paris-Roubaix bicycle race.

Paris-Roubaix! Definitely the big time. The Hell of the North. The centennial edition of Paris-Roubaix, 263.5 kilometers (164 miles) long, 50 of those kilometers over cobblestones, was run Sunday with four hours of coverage on European television.

This was more like it for Lavenu, the directeur sportif of Petit Casino-C'est Votre Equipe. Nodding happily, he turned realistic.

"What chance do we have against some of these teams?" he asked. "Big cylinders, some of them. We're small cylinders."

He knew what he was talking about: The only member of his six-man team who would finish was Jaan Kirsipuu, an Estonian, in 16th place. Lavenu is no fool but, even in realistic moments, he is enthusiastic.

"It's beginning to happen for us," he said. "Two second places, you noticed that? Two second places. For us, the season really begins now."

The two second places, scored last week, were in the distinctly minor Circuit de la Sarthe race. Lavenu's team is usually found in minor races, not in such crown jewels of the World Cup as Paris-Roubaix.

When the World Cup of one-day classics began in March with Milan-San Remo in Italy for the 22 first-division teams, his second-division team was riding in Cholet-Pays du Loire deep in France. When the big boys were riding the Tour of Flanders in Belgium, his team was at the Grand Prix de Rennes in deeper France. Next weekend, when the 22 first-division teams ride Liège-Bastogne-Liège in Belgium, the second division will be in such small-time races as A Travers le Morbihan and the Tour de la Côte Picarde in deepest France.

Morbihan! Picardy! Backwaters. Lavenu winces. His heart yearns for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the big time.

The problem, of course, is money. With an annual budget of 6.5 million francs ($1.5 million), he cannot compete for star riders with the first-division teams: Banesto spends more than $6 million a year, Mapei and Gewiss ditto, ONCE don't ask.

Gan, the sole first-division team in France, has a budget of nearly $5 million. In contrast, the five French second-division teams range from a bit above $1 million (Mutuelle de Seine et Marne) to not quite $2 million (Agrigel-La Creuse).

As a small team with a small budget, Petit Casino-C'est Votre Equipe is eligible only for the World Cup races in its own country. Of the 11 World Cup classics, that means just Paris-Roubaix in the spring and Paris-Tours in the fall. In between, it is the small time: Cholet, Rennes, the Tour of Armorique, places virtually unknown to first-division teams. Picardy!

The 40-year-old Lavenu is daunted neither by the races nor by his team's lackluster performance this season. He will not react the way Willy Teirlinck, the directeur sportif of Collstrop, a minor Belgian team, did this month when his riders showed no spark in a multiday race: Teirlinck recalled his staff from the feed zone where the riders grab bags of sandwiches, fruit and cake and made them finish two daily stages in the cold rain without lunch, without fuel.

Collstrop and Petit Casino have the same number of victories this season — none — but it is not Lavenu's way to be harsh. He remembers how it felt to be a minor rider trying to stay with those with stronger legs and more talent. Instead of anger, he offers understanding.

"It's a young team with a lot of spirit," Lavenu said hopefully earlier in the season. The only Petit Casino rider with a name is its leader, Armand De Las Cuevas, whose talent is often obscured by his attitude. Last year the Castorama team that he led suspended him without public explanation from mid-July through the end of the season in November.

"He's a rider of high quality, a little different, but a leader," Lavenu said. "His signing will give us a little more cachet."

Cachet is what Lavenu desperately needs. In his fifth year as a directeur sportif, his goal is, as always, an invitation to the Tour de France. He usually makes it and his overmatched team always rides dismally. But it's the big time and Lavenu bubbles the entire three weeks.

"The Tour de France is the main goal of all French teams," he said. "I think De Las Cuevas is an extra trump." The Tour's organizers have already issued invitations, all of which were accepted, to the top 18 teams in the computer rankings. Petit Casino ranks 23d. Four wildcards will be awarded in June and Lavenu is optimistic.

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