He wore the yellow jersey for three stages of the Tour de France, before stepping away from the sport in 2002 because he felt it had shifted out of line with his own values. After running his own team – Sojasun – and taking it to the Tour de France, Stéphane Heulot now keeps Rally Cycling’s European operation on the rails as its European general manager.
It feels like the Tour de France is ‘my’ race. I know it’s a little bit pretentious to say that, but I have very good memories there. I certainly haven’t closed the book on the Tour, one day I hope to be back there with Rally Cycling.
When you wear the maillot jaune it’s like you’re the sun. Everyone looks at you, you are the center of everything. I was very happy to have it, but it wasn’t easy to share it at that time. Of course, the yellow jersey is the most beautiful in cycling, but I also felt very alone. You couldn’t easily call your parents or your wife back in 1996, so I had only my teammates to share it with. It’s wonderful, but it’s impossible to understand. When I look at my maillot these days, I see only my good moments and forget the bad.
When I met Charles Aaron, it took five minutes to change my mind. He wanted to find a person with experience in Europe to help the team and we were introduced by a mutual friend. Originally I said ‘no, no, no!’, but he was in Paris so I met with him just to give him some advice. We shared all the same values; he’s very loyal and has a great vision for the project. Most importantly, he knows where he is strong, and where he is not strong. Two years later, the team is in a great place and I believe we’re ready to reach the next level.
We have some big goals with the team right now. We have a great sponsor and I hope that in the near future we will be competing at the biggest races in the sport, in the company of the biggest teams in the world.
Bike racing is a family affair. My dad was a great amateur racer, and after that, he was my sports director. He was also the president of my first team, ACNC. Together we developed 25 youth riders to become pros. My wife actually works for Rally Cycling now, helping us with logistics in Europe. She has been working in cycling since 2007 and we met in 2012 when she worked as the physiotherapist for the team I ran, Sojasun. We have a son now, he’s six and full of the joy of cycling.
I walked away from my professional cycling contract. It was 2002, a very bad time for the sport. I saw different things in my team, things that did not match with my values. It was in the middle of the Vuelta a España at the end of the season, but I had a year left on my deal. I asked if we could find a way to close my deal early.
I never lost the passion. I wasn’t angry with the sport and I always loved my bike, but it did not feel like my world. I wanted to be free. When I left racing I started managing a cycling center in Brittany and I began to follow some under 23 riders. In 2009, that became a professional team sponsored by Sojasun. In 2011, ’12 and ’13 we rode the Tour de France.
I made a lot of mistakes. The economy was terrible and it was a bad time to be running a cycling team. We had a good philosophy and some great results, but I picked the wrong people to work with and the team ended. I suffered a lot, but it was a huge learning experience.
Cycling must change. We are seeing the limitations of the WorldTour system today in the coronavirus crisis. Its weaknesses are exposed because we see some of the teams have a really bad business model. It’s clear that there are certain races with a monopoly, and that we have to change that. It’s not possible for new people to arrive – not because they lack the ability to do it – but it’s such a small world and it can be unsympathetic.
We can’t change things alone. The sport needs smaller organizers, smaller teams, but the priority is solely on the WorldTour teams right now. The majority of cycling is made by the clubs, the organizers, the youngsters. I hope a lot of things will change quickly because we need it. I hope that when Rally Cycling reaches the top level we can inspire a new model and bring people with us because we need the other teams’ support.