‘Kind of weird, but cool at the same time’ – Leon Chevalier on his progress

From 420th in the world to beating World Champions. Leon Chevalier on his plans and the rise of French triathlon.

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In the third and final part of our interview series with Leon Chevalier, we look forward to an exciting year, his desire to keep learning and dealing with imposter syndrome…

Oh, and carbon bikes aren’t the only reason that this engineer is interested in the group 14 member of the periodic table element!

Still more to learn

As you’ll have seen in our first feature, the University of Bath and the triathlon environment around it have proven central to the sporting success of the French athlete, since his move to the city in 2018.

While graduation is due this summer, Chevalier has no immediate plans to depart from Somerset. Or indeed, stop studying at all…

“It’s finally the end, so in June I’ll be graduating with a Masters in Chemical Engineering. That’ll be good, but then I want to do a PhD as I want to keep a foot in engineering, as I just enjoy it.

“I find it really interesting and like to have a balance between triathlon and non-triathlon interests. I’m really interested in renewable energies and carbon capture, I did a research project on that area last year, and it made me realise it was something I want to pursue. Hopefully I’ll start a PhD in October/November, so I just need to find a subject and funding and all of that, but that’s the plan.

“I’d like to stay in Bath because it’s an environment that I like, it works for me, plus [his girlfriend] Florrie is starting a job in Bristol in September. We like the area and want to stay there so hopefully we can.”

Given the proven success of Lucy Gossage, who spent much of her hugely successful professional triathlon career alongside her PhD work, there’s good reason to believe this approach can work well.

Engineering a maiden IRONMAN win

Looking back on Leon’s 2021 results, the highest profile success – globally at least – was victory at IRONMAN Mallorca in September. The race was broadcast live, and with an increased $100k total prize purse, the entry list was an impressive one too. Cameron Wurf, World Triathlon Long Distance champion, Krsitian Hogenhaug, Germany’s Florian Angert and Boris Stein. Looking back (the shame!), I didn’t even mention Leon in our preview feature.

My memory of Leon’s race in Alcudia was that with the finish line barely a mile away, he was not looking in great shape. After almost eight hours of fantastic racing, was he going to blow up big time in the final stages?

“Actually, I think the wheels fell off about 15km from the finish line! That’s when I basically bonked. I was in the lead of the race with Cam and Kristian for about five hours, and then on my own for two hours by that point and then of course you don’t want the last 40 minutes to take that away from you.

“I had that gap, about five minutes to Florian, which came tumbling down – but it’s about management of my own resources. I guess that’s something I can take from engineering, resource management, so I put it into auto-pilot and that aid station that I did walk, it was a very conscious decision. I knew that I could spend 20 seconds walking and that it would really help.”

Scary, weird, cool…

When I spoke to Alex Yee ahead of Tokyo 2020, he talked a lot about gaining the belief that you are good enough to compete with the best. Conquering that imposter syndrome is a real thing, and after success coming quicker than expected for Chevalier, that topic came up again in our conversation:

“Crossing the line is then that reassurance that you’ve done it, and then it’s a ‘wow, I can’t believe I did it.’ Coming into that race I was just hoping to run under 2:50 for the marathon as I’d not had a flat course before. It was quite surreal to win it.”

“It was absolutely stacked that race. When you are at home you think you can do these things – I know the power I can do on the bike, I know how fast I can run – but to actually execute it on race day against other people and know where you stand, it made me realise that is the sort of ballpark I’m in right now, and eventually hopefully I can be racing for those top spots at the biggest races.

“It’s a bit of a confidence booster but it’s sort of scary at the same time. You hear about imposter syndrome, and then all of a sudden you are there and in the mix. It’s kind of weird but cool at the same time.”

“I’ve looked up to these guys that I’m racing for years, and always thought there was something really special to be at the top of professional sport… and all of a sudden I’m thrown in, a bit closer towards the top. Then you see that the ‘something special’ is hard work, a bit of luck, some natural ability, but an awful lot of hours, in training and prep and making sure that on race day you do what you need to do. It’s kind of broken that glass ceiling – all of a sudden I’m way closer.”

On the world stage

His 2021 results have given him a great platform for the year ahead, with qualifications for St George and Kona already secured. Those are invitations he will 100% be taking up too…

“Yeah, I mean you are qualified for the world champs… why would you not go?! It’s an incredible opportunity to have both and to be qualified for both is a luxury as it just means I can focus on going to those races and preparing for them.

“St George will be my first race at that level, it will be a good race to learn what it’s like to be in that whole atmosphere and then on race day, what it’s like to have that density of quality athletes and see where I stack up against the other guys. And then I’ve got a second chance in Kona.

“It also means that the two races I’m going to do will be absolutely stacked, so if I want better odds of actually winning a race then I might need to branch out and do some others, so I’m going to do IRONMAN Nice which is at the end of June. They will probably be the three I’ll do this year, and throw in some 70.3s to blow off the cobwebs and get race sharp.”

Long and hilly, please…!

When I recently spoke to Rudy Von Berg – another athlete who will coincidentally be targeting IRONMAN France – we spoke in depth about some of the changes in the sport, and the decisions to be made with regards to choosing races, distances and the introduction of the PTO Tour events for example.

For 2022 at least, Chevalier is clear on his personal objectives:

“I’ve definitely gone into long distance with the intention of competing at iron-distance, and at the same time the PTO have come in with their events. The downside for me is that they are shorter than the 70.3 distance, so as an IRONMAN athlete you can’t be preparing for an eight hour race and then necessarily be expecting to perform (at the highest level) in a three hour race.

“On top of that, the two Opens are in Canada and the USA, and as an athlete who is starting out I’m already going to the U.S. for two World Champs this year. If I go another two times – not just in terms of finance, but travel and the toll it will take on your body – it’s put a new dimension on the sport. I think this year I’m going to focus on the [IRONMAN] World Champs because there are two of them and maybe after that and getting more established as an athlete, I’ll have a better chance to race those PTO Open races.

Leon Chevalier on the bike at IRONMAN UK 2021, Bolton
Leon Chevalier on the bike at IRONMAN UK 2021, Bolton

“I very much like Ironman, but as you’ll have seen from the races I did last year – Alpe d’Huez, Embrunman, Bolton and Mallorca – I like a bike course that tests all abilities of a bike rider. Taking a corner, climbing, descending, aero – I just find it really interesting to compete in and prepare for. I hope that those races are still gong to be there for people to race, and that they won’t be brushed aside for drag races elsewhere.”

French revolution

We finished off by discussing the impact that his progress has had back at home in France. While Vincent Luis is clearly the headline name in terms of French elite triathlon, there’s a strength-in-depth too across the distances, with several emerging long-distance athletes making fast progress.

“France has got this great infrastructure and system for short course racing, it’s very similar to the football and rugby clubs. You can sign up at 12/13 for fun, then you compete in these local championships and then you qualify for the higher levels. Basically from 13 to 18 I was doing two national championships per year, and to do those I had to qualify via one or two other races before that. Then you move into the D1 / D2 / D3 leagues, so there’s an incredible level of racing at the sprint distance basically.

“It meant I was a nobody really at that level, as there were so many other French athletes who were so much better than I was.

“Going into long distance, this year there’s a bunch of new faces that have emerged on the French side, with Clement Mignon, Sam Laidlow, Marjolaine Pierré and even Arnould Guilloux who’s been around for a while [Ed. winner of IRONMAN Wales in 2019], Denis Chevrot… so there’s a lot of French athletes now on the long distance scene.

“Obviously winning Embrunman really put me at the forefront, it really has a lot of traction in France. It’s the race you hear about when you start triathlon and it’s the one that you want to complete. So that really put me on the map, more than third at IRONMAN UK.

BOLTON, ENGLAND - JULY 04: Sam Laidlow of France (L) reacts after finishing 2nd with Leon Chevalier of France (R) 3rd at Ironman UK on July 4, 2021 in Bolton, England. (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for IRONMAN)
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for IRONMAN

“I raced at Alpe d’Huez [Ed. finishing second to Clement Mignon] and that was the race that put me on the French radar. Then winning Embrunman was sort of saying ‘that wasn’t a fluke.’ I get loads of nice messages from people on Instagram, and it’s really Embrunman or Alpe d’Huez that they remember, because they are the races that they sign up to and that they have always looked up to, to complete those mythical races. IRONMAN (generally) is not a big thing in France – it’s either IRONMAN Nice or it’s Embrunman.”

Leon Chevalier at the Alpe d'Huez Triathlon 2021 / Endura
Leon Chevalier at the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon 2021
(Photo Credit: Côme Bonnet-Badillé)

“Sponsors of course know what the big races are globally, so I think it’s important to perform on both scenes. Unless you are the absolute best in the world like say Jan Frodeno or Daniela Ryf, I think it’s important to perform in both areas [Ed. domestic and international].”

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