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Pro Cycling News
Casper at the End of the Road
Tour de France stage winner and lanterne rouge Jimmy Casper faces retirement
I’ve been writing about Jimmy for 15 years, and I’ve written about Jimmy in all his guises. I’ve written about Jimmy Casper the promising neo-pro, the little sprinter who upstaged the world’s finest. I’ve written about Jimmy Casper the flagging sprinter who struggled to get over the mountains of the Tour de France. Jimmy Casper the aging sprinter who rebranded himself a second-division star. I’ve written about Jimmy Casper the lanterne rouge.
I won’t be writing about Jimmy any more, for after 15 years in the pro ranks it appears he has come to the end. With no contract for 2013, Jimmy Casper is facing retirement.
But Casper doesn’t want to retire. Still, at 35, the Frenchman finished the 2012 season without a victory, and his Ag2r–La Mondiale team said it would not renew his contract. As Casper has made the rounds with most every French team around, the options for next season have run out.
Casper turned pro with Française des Jeux in 1998 after racing for less than year as an amateur. Many believed he would be France’s next great sprinter, which meant something in country with a shortage of sprinters. Built like a bulldog, Casper would never be confused for anything but a sprinter.
For a while it looked as if Casper would live up to expectations, especially after the second-year pro pipped German star Eric Zabel for four stage wins in the 1999 Tour of Germany. That success, of course, brought greater expectations; but in the ’99 Tour de France Casper struggled to finish in the top 10 in the field sprints.
“The pressure that gets placed on a young French rider as soon as he gets any results is incredible,” Casper said in October before the start of Paris-Tours.
“It’s one thing to beat Zabel in the Tour of Germany where we were pretty much the only sprinters in the race; it’s quite another to beat Zabel and Cipollini and all the others with their big leadout trains in the Tour.”
While sometimes I have written about the fledgling sprinter aspiring to beat the big boys at their own game, more often I wrote about Casper the non-climber who struggled over the Alps and Pyrenees under the daily threat of the Tour de France’s time cut, the percentage of the winning time that all riders must finish within.
Conversation in the press car often took up the chances of Casper in the early kilometers of a mountain stage. No other sprinter garnered so much attention on a mountain day. Samuel Abt, the cycling journalist and my traveling companion on the Tour for many years, and I reveled in the many scenarios that could befall Jimmy as the road climbed. Would he be penalized for grabbing onto a team car for a tow? Could he even hope to make it through the day?
Jimmy’s rivals complained that he took tows from the team cars, or at least more than they did. To this day Casper denies wrongdoing.
“I never took an illegal tow in the Tour de France,” he said. “No way—not in the Tour!
“I specify, not in the Tour!” he said with a wink.
For me, Jimmy was never as good as when he was battling for the lanterne rouge honor awarded to the last-place rider of the Tour de France. Twice he succeeded in finishing last, yet he still laments his failed bid to set a lanterne rouge record.
In the 2008 Tour, Casper was locked in a fierce competition for last with another two-time laureate, Belgium’s Wim Vansevenant. Both men desperately wanted to become the first three-time lanterne rouge. As usual, Casper lost massive time each mountain stage. On the legendary climb of Alpe d’Huez, his tactics failed him and he finished outside the time cut. He finished the stage anyway, hoping for a pardon from the race officials, but they were unforgiving. Casper was disqualified.
Casper still maintains that the dubious lanterne rouge record was within his grasp, that he had chances in other years. But in Vansevenant he ran up against an unrelenting rival. “Wim always had one last card to play,” Casper said. “On the last stage on the Champs-Élysées, he could always sit up before the finish and lose an extra minute or two. But I was a sprinter; I couldn’t do that. I had to contest the sprint.”
Vansevenant won the lanterne rouge award three times—2006, 2007, 2008—and is the record-holder.
Casper, of course, produced other memorable performances. None was greater than the day he won a stage of the Tour de France, upsetting the world’s fastest men on Stage 1 in 2006.
While Tour glory came too late for Casper, he did live a brief renaissance after signing with Saur-Sojasun in 2009. Since the team was not part of the WorldTour, it wasn’t guaranteed an invitation to race in the Tour de France, so it concentrated on the smaller French Cup races. Casper excelled in those, winning the overall title. “The Saur-Sojasun years were the years I enjoyed most,” he said.
With six victories on Saur in 2011, Casper wanted back in the WorldTour, and he signed with Ag2r for 2012. It proved to be a poor career move; he failed to produce a single victory.
“Jimmy was a big disappointment,” said Vincent Lavenu, Ag2r’s general manager. “He was paid well—very well—and he did nothing.”
Casper agreed: “I just never clicked with this team,” he said. “It never worked for me.”
He raced this fall’s Paris-Tours hoping to salvage his season with a strong performance, but he knows that his 41st place, behind winner Marco Marcato, would turn few heads among pro teams still recruiting.
“I may be 35 but I don’t feel like I’m done,” Casper said. “I still have the desire to train hard and race. But the problem is that most people think a 35-year-old sprinter with no victories is finished.”
Casper will keep looking for a team, at least until December 31. But he’s realistic. He understands that the Jimmy Casper story, at least that of a professional cyclist, is coming to an end.
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