La Solitaire du Figaro: Rookie Pirouelle could make history

The third and final stage of the 53rd La Solitaire du Figaro starts Sunday local time and for the third successive stage, promises to be a race of two distinct halves, with the big question being: can Guillaume Pirouelle become the first rookie to win the race?

A light and fluky outbound leg from Royan at the mouth of the Gironde, down to Arcachon, across the Bay of Biscay to the Farallones mark east of La Coruña on the north coast of Spain, looks set to be followed by a full on second half.

Stage 3 route

A pedal to the floor, rock and roll downwind sprint to the final finish line off Saint Nazaire in winds gusting to 35 knots. The course distance is 640 nautical miles and the winners are forecast to finish Thursday morning.

La Solitaire first-timer, Guillaume Pirouelle (Région Normandie), a 28-year-old past Olympic 470 campaigner from Le Havre, leads into the final stage with a margin of 14 minutes and 46 seconds. He is ahead of Tom Laperche, 25, (Région Bretagne-CMB Performance).

Third, at 19 minutes and 58 seconds behind the leader, is Achille Nebout, 32 (Amarris-Primeo Energie). in fifth, but having led both of the first two stages at different points, is Tom Dolan 35 (Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan).

The ‘Flying Irishman, as the French call Dolan, is one hour and one minute behind Pirouelle, but showed on the last leg he is probably the fastest in the fleet in big downwind conditions, taking 10 places in 25-30kts over 160 miles in the Channel. He seems to have every chance of bettering the fifth place in 2020 that is his career high water mark to date.

It promises to be an engaging showdown not least the regional rivalry with Pirouelle representing his native Normandy and the north of France, Brittany’s Laperche is very much the golden boy of French sailing right now and Nebout is from Montpellier on the Mediterranean, not far from where last year’s winner Pierre Quiroga is from.

If Pirouelle could win overall in Saint Nazaire -which lies at the mouth of the Loire back where the fleet started two weeks ago – he would become the first rookie to do so since a 22-year-old Laurent Bourgnon did so in 1988 when the late Swiss skipper raced La Solitaire for his one and only time, back when the French solo classic was contested in half tonners.

But the leader of the General Classification faces an especially tough challenge from the young Laperche who already has two third places from his three participations so far and won all three of the main solo races this season leading into this La Solitaire du Figaro. And Dolan, on his fifth La Solitare, has recently been widely tipped by the French media cognoscenti.

Tom Dolan could be in the mix

It will be a light wind, downwind in a north-westerly breeze to the turn off Arcachon, a light reach towards a transition zone, Monday to Tuesday, which they need to cross as fast as possible to get into a south-westerly, which will be light to start with. At the mark off the Spanish coast, the breeze for the leaders will be around 20-25 but building to 25-30 for the fast run back to Saint Nazaire.

Dolan is in a very positive mood. Gone are his previous spells of self-doubt. From an Irish farming community, rather than a sailing hub on the coast, he suffered from a version of imposter syndrome in his early years, but has come of age on this race.

On the dock in Royan he said, “There is much less pressure now. I am in the zone. Here I have been hibernating and then I just get back on the boat and into it. The buildup is stress, a week of faffing around, interviews and so on and then worrying about performing on the first leg.

“Once you are on the boat it is easy. And now I have already had a good Solitaire. At the start it is ‘what if this turns out to be a shit one?’ Now I can say I have led both legs and have been up the front on both legs and I have been fast and largely done the right things.”

He grins “I am looking forwards to the last bit, downwind in 2 knots living on energy bars with one gybe. It will be big kite ‘til it explodes then the small one, back in the south-westerly, but before that, I think it will be important to be low risk across Biscay., There are big differences in the routing, so potentially big differences arriving at Farallones.

“You want to be in the right pack at that mark and then after that it is downwind boat speed which I am not too bad at all. Whoever doesn’t broach or break things will do best.”

Pirouelle said: “I leave with no pressure; my first Solitaire is already a great one. If I can win it will be amazing, if I don’t win, too bad, I will be back. I try not to think about it too much because everything can go very quickly on a stage of La Solitaire. People who are an hour behind can come back quickly, we saw that on the stage between Port-La-Forêt and Royan.

“Right now, I’m just keen to get going. We are going to have a great stage again. The beginning of the race is quite complicated, strategic and complex. Once past Farallones, it will be tougher and faster back towards Saint Nazaire.

“The times bonuses for the intermediate sprints are good to win (Ed note: top 3 at these points gain 5,3 and 1 minutes) but so far, I have not yet managed to take one! But five minutes could well be enough to win the race, so yes, it is important.”

Tom Laperche is knocking on the door in second place

Laperche said: “There is still a complicated stage ahead of us. We leave for 48 hours of light winds in the Bay of Biscay. It might get complicated. It’s a little hard to really know what’s going to happen because the weather is all over the shop.

“Once at Les Farallonnes, we’re going to tackle 300 miles downwind at full gas. We will be flying, but it will inevitably be a little stressful in the strong wind. The important thing will be to rest as well as possible on the first part and to be well placed in Gijon, because then you can keep on the attack.

“In summary, you will have to manage not to blow up your mind on the way out and not to blow up the spinnaker on the way back! It’s going to be great and I hope to manage to do well. I’m going to do what I know how to do by trying not to put pressure on myself.

“We will see what happens. In principle, we should arrive in Saint-Nazaire in the night from Wednesday to Thursday.”

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