In a few weeks, Enzo Paleni will officially start his career at the world’s highest level. A member of the “Conti” for the past two years, the versatile 20-year-old rider has impressed both by his domestique work and by his personal performances on major U23 events. We sat down to get to know him.
When you grow up between the Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Galibier, you obviously are, straight away, surrounded by cycling. Originally from Valloire, in the heart of the Maurienne valley, Enzo Paleni seemed to have a clear path. Seemed only. “As a child, I often saw the Tour de France pass by, and I remember always telling my father that I wanted to do the Tour”, he recalls today. “However, when you live in Valloire, it is actually difficult to ride a bike. There are no clubs around. The closest one was in Chambéry, an hour and a half away. And there is only one road: either to the Galibier or to the Télégraphe. When you’re that young, it’s not ideal. I did a bit of mountain biking for a year, but I wasn’t really into it”. This is why, despite regular rides with his father or his cousins, the young man decided to explore other disciplines: judo, tennis, skiing and even snowboarding. With the latter, he also got to participate in his first French championships. Later, swimming and running came along, but ice-hockey took most of his attention and passion in middle school. So much so that he joined a sports study program in Villard-de-Lans when he entered fifth grade. Away from home for the first time, he lived with a host family for two years and further increased his commitment to ice-hockey. Until a forced halt.
Cycling as a result of delicate knees and moving house
At the age of 14, nature and biology foreshadowed a turning point, as Enzo Paleni suffered a patellar syndrome to both knees. “Because of my growth, my kneecaps were no longer strong enough,” he says. “Sometimes I was just standing up and I would fall backwards. At the start of the school year, I was therefore advised to do cycling or swimming as a form of rehabilitation. I was already swimming, so I thought, ‘Why not start cycling?’” From this moment, a new trajectory took shape. “In the summer prior to the start of the school year, I went to my grandparents, who are cycle tourists, and they lent me a bike”, he adds. “For a week, I was going to ride in the morning and in the afternoon, and I liked it so much”. When he returned home, however, the practical question rose again. Valloire was still far from cycling structures, so the teenager conducted his investigation on the internet and then found clubs in the Beauvais area, where his mother lived. Despite his young age, his will was clear, and his choice was soon confirmed. “I moved house for cycling,” he says. “So, I started in U16 when I entered third grade. For some reason, it had always seemed out of reach to me, so when the opportunity arose, I took it with both hands.” He therefore transferred 800 kilometres to the North, left Valloire, and at the same time, ice hockey. He confesses today: “Without my patellar syndromes, I might never have ridden a bike. It turned out well, eventually.”
Although being already “physically developed”, Enzo Paleni discovered a completely different environment, but he had only one goal in mind. “I have always done sport for competition, not for leisure”, he says. Yet, the native of Aix-en-Provence came down to earth with a bang at his first ever race. “I already pictured myself attacking and winning,” he laughs. “After ten kilometres, I was dropped from the peloton. The broom wagon told me to stop, I didn’t want to, but they took my bib, and I finished twenty minutes after everyone else. I was not classified, they had uninstalled everything. I thought ‘how can I be so bad!’ I cried about it”. This first setback made him realize the importance of training, which was something he had underestimated until then: “At first, I only rode on Wednesdays with the club, and if it rained, we wouldn’t even go. If there were no races on the weekend, I would not necessarily go on a ride. In the beginning, I hardly trained. I wasn’t aware.” Once again, his curiosity allowed him to solve the issue. Through various articles and videos on the internet, he learned more about the keys to progress. First: interval training. “Not far from my house, there was a slight uphill portion, between two posts, which made for a 30 second-effort”, he recalls. “I would do 30 seconds at full speed, I would come back, and I would repeat that several times. From the moment I understood that you had to train to be strong, everything changed”. Despite a poor racing strategy, he finished fifth in his third race and got the ball rolling.
“It was never ‘riding a bike just for riding a bike’”
The good results became frequent, and even more important during the summer, which he spent in Valloire. He trained in the Galibier, competed in races in the region or even further south, and started to collect podium places. “When I returned to Beauvais, a club coach told me ‘Don’t get carried away, it’s not the same level here'”, he explains. “However, I kept on getting podiums”. At the end of the year, something new came into consideration: the Madiot Trophy. Eager to move up a notch, he then set himself a goal for his second season among the U16. “I had vaguely heard of it,” he says. “I took a closer look at who won it, and where did they go next. It was often the U19 Btwin Racing Team. I remember saying to my father ‘next year, I want to win the Madiot Trophy and join the Btwin team’”. He did not fail to turn his words into deeds. Together with his father, he traveled to the various rounds in the West of France and eventually won the general classification after eight events, thanks to several podiums. “I remember having, once or twice, slept in a tent the day before the race”, he smiles. “I don’t feel like I’m doing the same sport today.” In any case, as he had hoped, his success led him to the French junior structure. “It was done through application files,” he says. “I was in the pre-list, and I was already super happy. Then, someone called me one day and started with “I’m sorry but … we’re taking you on the team”. I got scared, but it was done!”. The next step towards the top-level was thus approved. “In all the sports I’ve done, the goal has always been to be a pro,” says Enzo. “When I started cycling, I aimed to be as strong as possible. It was serious from the start. For me, it was never ‘riding a bike just for riding a bike’”.
Although still limited, the professional approach did start from that point. While entering the Juniors category, Enzo Paleni also pursued his scientific degree in high school. As for cycling, his start to the season was disturbed by a tendonitis and he did not manage to add up performances. “I was disappointed with what I could do,” he explains. “It was much better at the end of the season, I started to get results. Thanks to this team, I was able to do a lot of international races and that made me improve enormously. Even if I didn’t win, it gave me a lot of experience. I felt that I had the required level, even if I did not really have the results to show it”. Later, he closed the season with his best result of 2019: 7th in the Chrono des Nations. Of course, he aimed for “much better” starting his second season with the Juniors, but yet again, his return to racing was disrupted. During a training camp, he crashed on a safety rail and suffered a cut to his leg. Two things however toned his misfortune down: the cut was not too deep and followed the muscle structure, and quite soon, everyone else was also forced to stop. “With the Covid, I didn’t miss much,” he says. “I did not fall behind compared to the others, and it ended up lasting a little longer than expected. I continued to train well during the lockdown, I worked hard, and that allowed me to perform well as soon as we resumed racing”. When he returned to competition in August, he straight away finished second in the Boucles de l’Oise and then continued with a major performance on the European scene, netting second place in the well-known Grand Prix Rüebliland, in Switzerland.
Looking for professionalism, points of reference and results with the “Conti”
His dynamic took a whole new dimension. “Even if I did not always have the results I hoped for, I always remained confident because I know what I want and I give myself the means to achieve it,” he adds. “Scoring a big result never changed anything for me. I just take it as the next step to go further”. In what was an extended season, he also took silver in the French time trial championship in late October and was spoiled for choice regarding his destination for 2021. He eventually picked the “Conti” Groupama-FDJ’s offer. “I wanted high-level in terms of professionalism”, he explains. “I remember sending a message on Instagram to Kevin Geniets. I didn’t know him, I didn’t even think he was going to answer me, but he did and said, “if you’re looking for a professional environment, go there”. I talked a lot with my relatives. I also knew Arnaud [Démare] a little bit, I had spoken to him on the phone, and he told me “Choose what you want, you ride a bike for yourself, not for others”. I hesitated quite a bit, but the Conti’s project pleased me more than the others”. His first steps in Besançon, during the off-season, did validate his decision. “It was even more than what I expected,” he insists. A few weeks later, he was just as satisfied to enter a new, multicultural setting. “I’ve always wanted to go abroad for cycling, to discover something else,” he says. “The fact that it existed there was even better.” And that’s how he launched his career, both with the U23s… and the professionals.
Unfortunately, it did not go as fluently as he wished for. A crash in the Grand Prix Monseré at the start of the season led to a crippling crack in his meniscus. “My knee would swell every two weeks, which meant I needed to stop training for a few days. It’s been like that all season,” he says. With the “Conti”, he also very often took on a domestique role and contributed to many team successes. “If everyone rode for themselves, we would never win,” he underlines. On the other hand, he got the opportunity to shine on his own during time trials, particularly in the French championship, where he finished in second position for the second consecutive year. “I was going there for the win, but Kévin Vauquelin was stronger”, says Enzo. “It was the only goal I had set for the season, and I did quite well. So, I thought I needed to set myself more goals for 2022”. He concluded the season with a fourth place in the Chrono des Nations, despite a heavy crash two days prior, and with some rewarding race days with the WorldTour team under his belt. It is also with the “big guys” that he returned to racing a few months later, on the Tour of Valencia, quite unexpectedly. It nevertheless turned out to be a great launching pad for the spring season and his first goal of the year: the Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux. “I knew that I had to create my opportunity if I wanted to have my chance,” he says. “The course could suit me, especially with regard to the time trial which could allow me to do a nice general classification”. After taking the breakaway on the first day, Enzo Paleni got off to a good start, which he confirmed on the second day after creating some echelons with the team. On Sunday morning, his fourth place in the time trial put him in the lead of the general classification, which he retained in the afternoon on a hilly final. “Achieving a team result is great, but having your personal result is always a source of pride”, he agrees.
“To be the best Enzo Paleni I can be” and entering the WorldTour
Subsequently, the young man returned to his ‘gregario’ role and hugely participated in the Conti’s historic season. Consistent, he also set some decent results in time trials: on the Mediterranean Games (2nd), the U23 European championship (12th) or the U23 French championship (4th). “I didn’t manage to do what I wanted,” he still says. “Especially on the Euro Champs, where I didn’t have my belongings after a suitcase issue, which is always bothering”. However, he ended his season on a high in the gruelling Ronde de l’Isard, where he obtained an unexpected third place overall. “I was really motivated,” he says. “I went to my father’s in Valloire for a week as preparation. The goal was to be there for Reuben and Lenny, I did not expect to play my card. But like last year, I took the breakaway on the first day and finished third in the stage. I was disappointed to miss the victory, but it allowed Reuben and myself to position ourselves for the GC”. From that moment on, he made a point to hang on for as long as possible. “I was protected, I had lost some weight and my form was good,” he adds. “I knew I could climb. For me, it was just a confirmation. For others, it was more of a surprise”. Due to unnecessary efforts on the queen stage to Goulier Neige, he eventually settled for third place overall. “You are never totally satisfied,” he points out. “But it is still motivating, and I am happy I could show certain qualities. The team now knows what I am capable of and will be able to trust me on this kind of event moving forward”.
While certifying he has “progressed” and “achieved [his] main objectives” in 2022, Enzo Paleni remains quite open regarding his profile as a rider. “It’s an advantage and a defect: I’m good everywhere, but I don’t have an area of excellence,” he analyses. “Looking at my results, my strong point seems to be the time trial. If I want to win a race, I have to enter a breakaway. If I wait for the sprint or for the last climb, it will be hard. For me, it’s also easier to win a general classification than to win a road stage. My strength is to be consistent all the time and to be good on all terrains”. At 20, he does not claim any role model. He actually admires “all riders”, knowing how “hard it is to be a professional cyclist”. For now, he therefore has only one obsession: “I want to be the best Enzo Paleni I can be. We will then see with the team and the coaches where I can progress and where I can lean toward”. This team will no longer be the Conti, but its big sister. Indeed, like seven of his teammates from the 2022 roster, Enzo will cross the bridge leading to the Groupama-FDJ WorldTour team. “At the start of the season, I was not necessarily planned to move up in 2023, but I remember that Marc said that he would be able to take six, seven, even eight riders if necessary”, he recalls. “I was pretty calm about all that, and I still had two years with the U23s in case of. Since I started cycling, I have always imagined myself “succeeding”, so for me, it had to be the logical continuation of my journey, whether it was this year or the next”. From next January, Enzo Paleni will tackle the highest level, and is very much looking forward to it. “Of course, we will have to learn more, but I think that the last two years with the Conti have already taught us much”, he claims. “It was actually the goal to move to the WorldTour while being ready and competitive from the start. The team already has expectations of us, gives us personal objectives, and that’s what I wanted. It’s a motivation, and that makes you want to do well”.