Continuing on our recent Irish theme we caught up with Aidan Duff, former Vendee U professional and now owner of Fifty One Bikes – building bespoke carbon frames.
‘Fifty One?’ we hear you say…
The race number for Merckx, Ocana, Thevenet and Hinault when they won the Tour de France.
With tales of Jean Rene Bernadeau, Tommy Voeckler and building custom carbon – not ‘off the peg from Taiwan’ – we cover some interesting ground.
Tell us how you got a ride with the Vendee U team please, Aidan?
“I was a pretty good junior in Ireland, winning several national championships – a big fish in a small pond, I guess?
“Peter Crinnion, who’s a legend in Irish Cycling was my club mate in the Bray Wheelers and I said to him that when I turned first year senior I wanted to go and race in France.
“Peter spoke to Stephen Roche on my behalf and Stephen advised I should ride my first senior season in Ireland to avoid being ‘machine gunned on the Normandy Beaches’!
“I put his advice in the shredder and headed for Nantes and a team with ‘great structure’ – which turned out to be the French cycling equivalent of Fawlty Towers. I regretted not following Stephen’s advice but I did manage to win 12 or 15 races.
“At races I’d ride, when Vendee U appeared it was like the Spanish Armada arriving with a truck, bus and team cars. We were like; ‘who are these guys ?’ when we first saw them.
“I got an interview with Jean Rene Bernadeau and told him my palmarès, he gave a Gallic shrug; ‘small races,’ but he warmed to me and said that he’d take a risk but I had to get an ex-pro to vouch for me as being a reliable guy – he knew them all, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley…
“Of course I said it was ‘no problem’ but I hardly knew any of them, but Peter Crinnion spoke to Stephen Roche and despite my not listening to his advice, Stephen phoned Jean Rene for me.”
How many years were you with the team and what was it like?
“I was six years in France and specifically three years in Vendee U.
“In many ways it was a well-structured, well-funded operation. Bernadeau had taken all the traits from Peugeot and his career as a whole and wanted to “professionalise” Elite 2 racing as it was known back then.
“He would buy all the ex Castorama cars, trucks etc.; we had the best custom-built Gitane branded bikes, Campagnolo equipped, and he really leveraged his contacts to make sure we always had the latest products.
“He was very involved in the design of the jersey and the overall team’s branding.
“In that sense he was probably ahead of the game. That was part of his plan – when we rocked up to a race it was, as I said, like the Spanish Armada. He knew it would mess with lesser-funded team’s heads before the race even started.
“A place in the team was highly coveted and it was very much a ‘band of brothers’. His game plan was always to get a bigger budget to go full Pro which he eventually did with the first iteration of the team, Bonjour.
“The down side was that all the glitters is not gold; race programs would change at the last minute so you could find yourself preparing to take on a stage race where you had planned to demolish a TT only to find you were going to drive 14 hours to take part in some hilly event.
“All because the local Super U had agreed to fund the expedition or pay a few extra quid (the sponsors were the local government of the Vendee region and the Super/Hyper U chain of stores).”
What was Monsieur Bernadeau like?
“‘JR’ – as he is known – is quite the enigma; he was brought up in very poor conditions in a small rural town. I don’t know how he got started on the bike but I do know the story about when he lined up as a junior with all the region’s mafia criterium riders and was told to watch and learn for his first race.
“He ended up lapping the field and that was the start of his career.
“I deal with JR the odd bit to this day as I’m always trying to place an Irish rider or something to that effect. I do a little with Cycling Ireland in relation to their High Performance unit.
“He was always on the lookout for the next big hope and you could find yourself either golden boy out of flavour pretty quickly. Riders who didn’t fit his “mould” were immediately blacklisted.
“They may not have known however as he didn’t like conflict, you would need to know his body language or facial expression. He’s very much old school so riders who were sick (even occasionally) would be considered weak or as having small engines.
“On one occasion I had a raging fever and he offered some classic advice; ‘head out for a six hour spin and sweat it out.’
“I remember that during my first few months there I started to suffer from a sore knee. Concerned it could be the new shoes or a bent pedal axle I asked if the team had a local physio I could visit. Bernadeau slapped me on the back and said; ‘Congratulations, you’re now a real cyclist. Get used to having pain and niggles.’
“Tactically he was amazing and he took great pride in concocting elaborate plans and breaking the race to pieces at key moments.
“He was great to have in the car and a fantastic motivator.”
Tell us about your Tommy Voeckler connection, please.
“Voeckler was part of the feeder team and was part of the Ecole des Sports et Etudes. Which meant he continued his education but with a big slice devoted to cycling, training, nutrition etc. It’s a common enough route for French riders who show promise at a young age.
“We used to collect him after school on the way to races.
“In ‘98 I had planned for a strong Paris – Roubaix. In the end it didn’t go to plan as I had multiple mechanicals but Thomas was the domestique on the team so he gave me his wheel. The best I could do was finish eighth.
“I think two years later he won that same U23 edition.
“The interesting thing about Voeckler is he had no real attributes that made him stand out – his Vo2 was normal, he didn’t test particularly well, his muscle mass was normal too.
“To people who haven’t cycled this may seem idiotic for me to say, but the point I am making is Voeckler’s true force was his mental strength and tenacity.
“He was in many senses a reincarnation of Bernaudeau. Made up of true grit. I think that’s why the two of them remained together for his entire career.”
Tell us about your Herald Sun Tour stage win; who were you riding for?
“The first thing is that I shouldn’t have even been there!
“As a junior I got used to just ‘stepping in’ to national teams, but that year was average and I only got to ride because someone became ill.
“The day I won it was a split stage, each around 90 K. In the morning it was like a kermis, a five K circuit around a park and I infiltrated the break – Baden Cooke was there and so was Brad McGee along with a big Belgian guy who I later learned was the national criterium champion.
“Despite the company I was in, I decided I could win – but ended up fourth from four and really disappointed.
“More as a joke, Ciaran Power said I should; ‘go from the gun’ in the afternoon stage. I took it as a ‘dare’ and that’s what I did with a group of perhaps 20/25 forming around me – too big.
“I went again and there was an eerie silence – I looked back, the whole field was together and ‘piano’ across the road with me 600 metres off the front.
“Despite my difficult morning, I persisted and got the gap up to maybe eight minutes – with my team manager screaming at me and abusing me from the car I held on to win by a minute!”
And your Tour de Bretagne stage win; who were you with?
“I was riding with Luc Leblanc’s team, and it was my last victory as it turns out.
“A 190km stage and the break went from km 10. It was wet and windy and approaching the finishing circuit there were only two of us left.
“But the circuit had an 800m wall on it and we were caught by a group of four.
“We managed to hold on up the final climb and I launched a do or die attack before the last 90 degree corner. I was pretty sure I would be either sipping champagne or spending the night in the hospital.
“I had always taken pleasure in designing my own bikes and was using a steeper head tube angle. The bike handled like it was on rails so I was sure (almost) I could make it.
“We were holding first and second on GC but let it slip away on the final stage.
“In the end I finished eighth, one spot ahead of a certain Alberto Contador!”
Check out Part Two of our interview with Aidan!