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From what is considered the most competitive fleet ever, Yoann Richomme won the opening stage of the 50th La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro; a strategic 545-nautical mile leg from Nantes across the Celtic Sea to Kinsale in Ireland proved to be an appropriately testing introduction of the new Figaro Beneteau foil assisted one design yacht.

Predominantly light and very changeable winds prevailed through the marathon four days and four nights of racing offering very little opportunity to rest. Expected to finish into the picturesque Irish haven on Wednesday, the stage overran by a full 24 hours.

In spite of the stellar cast participating in this landmark edition of the famous French multi stage solo championship, Richomme, who won La Solitaire overall in 2016, said before the start that he felt no pressure.

“I feel so satisfied. I feel great. I didn’t have any pressure because two months ago I didn’t know I was going to do the race. I’ve come into it under great conditions with a great boat and a great team. The boat is well prepped; I’ve got my boat technician from 8 years ago now. Well, with everything we have done, I am in such a good place,” he smiled last night.

Diligent technician Richomme was drafted on to the Hellowork-Groupe Telegramme Figaro Beneteau 3 two months ago as a replacement for Charles Caudrelier who moved to co-skipper an Ultime trimaran.

Even as the outstanding Class 40 winner of last year’s Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe, the 36-year-old from Lorient largely slipped under the French media radar. He was perhaps overshadowed by the return to the race of the trio of three-time champions, Jérémie Beyou, Yann Eliès and double Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux.

Then there are the top seeds that had podiumed on the early season races, such as Xavier Macaire, the Solo Maître Coq winner and returning Vendée Globe champion. Armel Le Cléac’h, the twice La Solitaire winner who won the final warm up event.

Leg 1 of this 2019 edition is one which will be long remembered as an emotional rollercoaster of big gains and losses, big comebacks and correspondingly sizeable slumps, all becoming almost commonplace.

The key choice of Richomme to carry on the direct, northwards course across the Celtic Sea – made on the strength of his careful assimilation of his new weather update - was the foundation stone of his win. But he, too, staged an impressive return.

Passing Brest and Ushant in 25th place, Richomme, veteran of eight La Solitaires, chuckled on the Kinsale dock last night that he was so disillusioned at the point, that had he had any excuse, a small breakage for example, he might well have thrown in the towel there and then.

“When we came across Ushant if something had broken I was going to pull out. I was so tired of losing. Every single time I tried something I was losing, losing, losing. It was so slow I was like, ‘We are never going to get to Kinsale.’

“Good thing I didn’t give up. I was pretty far from the leaders. It was pretty awful, it was hard. The thing is, there were already a lot of miles in it,” Richomme recalled.

“This leg was changing so much. It was in the details. And that made it really interesting. I think it was the most interesting leg I have ever done, weather-wise.”

His choice to lead the direct charge, while many of the race ‘tenors’ chose to hitch offshore to the west, left the likes of Eliès and Beyou deep in the field at the finish.

More significantly on La Solitaire which aggregates total elapsed time over all four stages, these two heavyweights are now respectively four hours and nine hours behind Richomme.

Underlining the constant changes imposed by differing breezes, there were nine different leaders during the stage and at one point on the Vendée coast Henri Lemencier, an unheralded amateur rookie lead the star studded fleet by 20 miles.

Richomme did not have it all his own way. He and was pushed hard to the finish line, in bright sunshine and 12 knots of breeze, with 21-year-old Tom Laperche on his heels.

The French rookie from one of the crucibles of French ocean racing talent, the Golfe du Morbihan, is a former Optimist junior champion who won last year’s Espoir (top hopeful) talent selection trial on the Credit Mutuel Bretagne program which produced last year’s winner Sébastien Simon.

Laperche said: "I am really happy. I did not expect to make a podium on the first stage of my first Solitaire. And to I think that I played for the win right until the finish line, I almost can’t believe it! For me it was almost normal for Yoann to be in front of me but I almost beat him. It's awesome!

“Other than my second place, which is much better than I unexpected, I have so many beautiful memories. This morning, getting to the Irish coast I saw it was so beautiful because it is green and hilly, then I had a ballet show from hundreds of dolphins. That was a great time and as the race was going well, I really enjoyed the moment."

The delighted Richomme crossed the finish line just 1 minute and 13 seconds ahead of the rookie Leboucher who becomes the first rookie to finish on a stage podium since Morgan Lagraviere in 2011. Pierre Leboucher (Guyot Environment), who represented France in the 470 at the 2012 Olympics in England and finished sixth, took third just two minutes and 55 seconds behind Richomme.

“I was not tired too much through the race but I am now, for sure, after the Fastnet these kids pushed me hard,” Richomme laughed.

All of the top finishing international sailors made notable comebacks to keep themselves in overall contention. Switzerland’s Justine Mettraux (Teamwork), seventh overall in 2017 and 11th last year, maintains her hopes of a top ten overall finish in this high standard fleet with an excellent 14th just one hour behind the winner.

Brit Alan Roberts (Seacat Services) proved his tenacity, coming back from 42nd and a deficit of more than 35 miles to finish 16th – one hour and 49 minutes behind the winner and an hour off the top ten. Conrad Colman (Ethical Power), the first New Zealander to compete on La Solitaire, was just 11 minutes behind Roberts in 17th, placed as third rookie.

“I am not too far behind the first guys and so that is what I am most happy about. There were so many transitions and once you are thinking you are OK another group of 15 boats passes. You have to restart again. But in the Figaro you always have to think there will be possibilities to the end. Even more now with the new boat you can come back. Look at Armel Le Cléac’h who was 40 miles behind and came back to 11th,” Mettrraux recalled.

“The main thing now is that I am still in contact with the leaders. That is the important thing, not the placing,” Alan Roberts said, “I lost ground early on after hooking a lobster pot. I lost contact with the fleet.

“I was originally in the top 15 but dropped to last. But I know in this game it is never over until you cross the finish line. I was motivated and I got back into it. I was happy with my speed. I sailed fast and had a pretty good strategy in terms of the weather and had a good game plan for the different scenarios.

“I stuck to the options. It is different now using the AIS because you only have range of two or three miles, less than you can see with your eyes. On the Figaro 2 (previous boats) you could see 15 or 20 miles and you could see what people ahead and behind were doing and so that is very different.”

Kiwi Colman was happy with his finish: "It was quite surprising to get a ranking in the middle of the English Channel which said we were not last and then when I realised I was in the top ten and had good boats around me that was an incredibly happy moment.

“I was able to hang on to them but it was incredibly challenging, I felt like I was hanging off the edge of a cliff by just my fingernails. All the boats seemed to be a little bit more comfortable with their speed. So I fought with them and created some distance to the boats behind us which is incredibly valuable."

The return to the race of the ‘roaring fifties’, silver surfers Desjoyeaux, 53, Loick Peyron, 59, and Alain Gautier, 57, proved the value of their decades of hard earned experience. Peyron, who won his first stage in 1986 finished sixth last night 53 minutes off the winner’s time, Desjoyeaux eighth two minutes and 50 seconds behind Peyron, and Gautier 13th an hour and 13 minutes behind Richomme.

There was to be no glory for the Irish skippers as they sailed into home waters. Tom Dolan (Smurfit Kappa) finished in 39th, ten hours after the winner. The talented Irish sailor was in the top group off the Brittany coast but chose to go west with many of the top seeds and paid a heavy price.

"It is good to be in. But I did fairly badly. I went the wrong way, simple as that. At Belle Ile I don't know what I was doing, I was in the lead group and going well. I kind of woke up from a nap and made a stupid decision.

“I saw a group going north of the island and thought 'oh yes, I need to go north of the island. It was stupid mistake and after that I went west in the Celtic Sea and that was it." Dolan explained on the dock.

Similarly Joanne Mulloy (Businesspost.ie/Believe In Grace) was competitive early in the race but faded and lost touch with the main body of the fleet, classified as abandoned before the finish.

Top 10, Leg 1, Nantes to Kinsale – Elapsed Time:
1 – Yoann Richomme – Hellowork – Groupe Telegramme – 4 days, 3 hours, 35 mins, 8 seconds
2 – Tom Laperche (Bizuth) – Bretagne CMB Espoir - 4 days, 3 hours, 36 mins, 21 seconds
3 - Pierre Leboucher – Guyout Environnement - 4 days, 3 hours, 38 mins, 55 seconds
4- Eric Peron – French Touch – 4 days, 3 hours, 45 mins, 42 seconds
5 – Corentn Douguet – NF Habitiat – 4 days, 3 hours, 46 mins, 13 seconds
6 – Loick Peyron – Action Enfance – 4 days, 3 hours, 56 mins, 51 seconds
7 – Damien Cloarec – Damien Cloarec Skipper – 4 days, 3 hours, 59 mins, 32 seconds
8 – Michel Desjoyeaux – Lumibird - 4 days, 3 hours, 59 mins, 41 seconds
9 – Martin Le Pape – Skipper Macif 2017 – 4 days, 4 hours, 00 mins, 12 seconds
10 – Benjamin Schwartz (Bizuth) – Action Contre La Faim - 4 days, 4 hours, 26 mins, 23 seconds

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