19,000 kilometers. As the crow flies, that’s roughly the distance between Laurence Pithie’s hometown, Christchurch, and his adopted city for the next two seasons, Besançon. At just 18 years of age, the two-time Junior World Champion on the track made a bold move by joining the “Conti” on the other side of the earth, in order to achieve his dream of turning pro. That was a good enough reason to get to know him.
The smallest thing can sometimes change a destiny. Laurence Pithie can tell. Now a professional cyclist within the “Conti” Groupama-FDJ, the 18-year-old New Zealander was not initially heading to a future on a bike. As he practiced various sports on a regular basis growing up, he was more interested in running. To be more specific, the native of Christchurch (on the southern island) was quite a good cross country runner in middle distance races. “I started running when I was a child really, and I always enjoyed it,” he says. In 2014, however, he temporarily had to take a break from it due to a knee injury. “My brother and my father were both cyclists, so I started cycling too,” explains Laurence. “It was just to keep my fitness up and to keep myself busy when I could not run.” He thus confesses: “If it hadn’t been for the injury, I probably wouldn’t have tried my hand on a bike.” Even though the family leaned that way. “Cycling was always there in the background,” he says, “but it wasn’t my chosen sport until much later. Dad used to be a big cyclist. He would always go for big rides after work or on the weekend. If we’re looking at the videos of my birthday – which is in July – as I’m opening my presents, we can hear the Tour de France’s commentators in the background”.
From winning in all disciplines to focusing on cycling
From time to time, the young boy also watched it on TV, but it was not really exciting for him back then. “It was quite boring to watch, which is an interesting thought looking at where I am now,” he smiles. However, his passion for the practice grew month after month and he quickly got “quite good” at the local level. That encouraged him to carry on with cycling, even after he had recovered from his knee injury. From 2015, he would then go to “Scool Cycling” on Wednesday afternoons. “I started from the lowest grade, but I quickly began to move up,” he remembers. “Already from 2016, I found myself facing guys 3-4 years older than me. They don’t do the racing by age groups but according to ability. I was competing against my brother, for example. That year, in fact, I managed to win the School’s overall trophy ahead of him by two points. That’s kind of where I started“. Like any self-respecting “Kiwi”, he also tried his hand pretty early on the track, and took part in a six-week regional program “that actually produced many world champions”. He was able to learn the discipline’s basics, discover another side of cycling, and proved successful from his first competitions. “It’s interesting,” he says. “I was quite talented in that I didn’t really need to train a lot. I would just show up on the day, do my thing, and do quite well”.
The year 2016 turned out to be a vivid example of the young man’s natural skills. In his age group (he was 14 years old), Laurence Pithie became champion of New Zealand in… cross country running, track cycling, road cycling, triathlon and duathlon. “It was a really good year for me,” he confesses. Although very successful, this season also was a turning point for the young man. At the end of 2016, he left running aside to focus entirely on cycling. “We have a really good coach in Christchurch called Andrew Williams,” he says. “He saw my potential but he did not want me to continue running, as I would probably overtrain. That was the condition if I wanted to be coached by him, and I really did. I also needed some routine and discipline. Since then I haven’t done any running, except in 2017 when I still ran the Nationals because it was in my hometown. I came eighth without training, and that was it.” From his first “full-time” year on the bike, Laurence Pithie realized he made the right decision. He took several wins on the track but also established himself on the road despite stiffer competition in the U17 category. That year, he came second in the New Zealand time trial championship. “That’s when I really got under the radar,” he says. The following year, he did even better, claiming the gold medal in the event. This earned him a spot in the Team Skoda-Fruzio a few months later.
The world titles, “a turning point”
“I had the opportunity to join the best road team in New Zealand,” he says. “That’s when I realized I got a real opportunity in the sport. I went from a kid racing at school to a rider taking part in the biggest races of the country. This team has produced WorldTour riders like Patrick Bevin or Robert Stannard. If you join this team, it means you show some potential. I really took my cycling to the next step and started to get a taste of ‘real’ racing, competing against Elites and U23 riders as a junior. From that point on, there was no turning back”. The teenager kept moving forward and making a name for himself in the New Zealand cycling scene. Taking advantage of better equipment, logistics and support, Laurence Pithie pulled off a very successful 2019 season. On the road, he came second in the New Zealand and Oceania time trial championships, but was also crowned in the Elite National Criterium. On the track, he won the Omnium on the national level but most importantly became world champion in the Omnium and the Madison later in the year, in Berlin. “I always want to win, and I race to win, but coming from New Zealand and having never raced in Europe before, I had no idea how good I was compared to the rest of the world”, he emphasizes. “It was a big surprise to come home with two titles. It was amazing to come back from the other side of the planet, and say ‘I was the best in the world’ and to have medals and a couple of jerseys to show for it. It was a real turning point, because I wasn’t expecting it to be honest.”
A few weeks later, he could show his rainbow stripes at the Oceania championships and lived up to his status by winning gold in the Omnium, also claiming the title in the Scratch Race. During the winter 2019-2020 (summer for him), he added a few national medals to his collection and then flew to Europe in March, theoretically for three months, in order to test himself in road racing there. However, after just a few days in the Netherlands, he had to turn back. The Covid-19 crisis was just beginning, and the cycling season was temporarily stopped. “I returned to New Zealand and we went into lockdown,” explains the young man. “Track Worlds, which was my goal for the year, were cancelled, and so were the road Worlds. Looking back, I could have continued school for one more year, but I had already made the decision to fully focus on cycling to make it to the top level.” On that matter, 2020 was not such a wasted year. During the lockdown, his agent Manuel Quinziato indeed started extensive talks with some teams. “Among them, there was the Conti,” adds Laurence. “We took everything into account to find out which was the best pathway for my development, and we decided that Groupama-FDJ would be the best. I had a call with Jens, he told me about the team and everything sounded great. The team has a great calendar and has proven that they know how to develop young riders like myself. It was a great opportunity for me to get on board with them. My goal is to get to the WorldTour and I believe I can do it through this team”.
“I’m also moving out, I just do it to the other side of the world”
Before heading to Europe, for good this time, Laurence Pithie first ended this very special season with a bronze medal in his national time trial championship and a ninth place (3rd best U23) on the Tour of Southland. Two months later, he resumed racing in the New Zealand Cycle Classic (2.2), with his national team. He netted three personal top 10s and took part in a team success in the opening TTT. He then did not perform as hoped on the Nationals Road Race, and soon came the time to say goodbye. “When you come from New Zealand and you want to be a pro bike rider, you have to leave home”, says Laurence. “There are no other options. That’s for sure a big change in your life, especially at such a young age, but in this sport it’s a sacrifice you have to make in order to become better and reach the top level. It’s hard moving away from loved ones, but I think there is a time when everyone has to do it. Some move out somewhere else in New Zealand. I’m moving out too, but on the other side of the world. That’s the way I look at it”. However, he was fortunate enough to make the transition with his fellow-countryman Reuben Thompson, also a new rider on the team. “It surely made things easier,” he confesses. “It feels good to have someone who talks with the same accent, and for sure it would have been harder without having a Kiwi friend around.”
His first real meeting with the Conti eventually occurred in Italy, in the team’s training camp at the start of the season. The New Zealander was immediately stunned. “Getting through the border security, leaving the airport and seeing the team van with all the logos on it, it felt surreal,” he says. “It always was a dream to join a team like this. In New Zealand, you see this jersey and these logos on TV, but that’s all you get being there… Getting to Italy, meeting everyone, getting the team’s bike and kits, it was just amazing. I felt very privileged”. He naturally took the opportunity to get to know his teammates better, in talks mixing English and… French. “I studied it a bit at school,” he says. “I can read it and write it. The most difficult part is to understand when the riders and the staff speak quickly. I still struggle with my pronunciation of some words, but being immersed in the culture and taking the lessons organized by the team will definitely help me improve.” After a few weeks on French soil, the young man also claims that “the integration was really seamless” and that the “team’s structure, so professional and of high quality” made it all “really easy”.
A Classics enthusiast aiming for versatility
Although he is delighted to discover a new environment and to enjoy a personal experience, Laurence Pithie does not forget what his primary goal is. By joining the Conti, he paved himself a way for a future in professional cycling, even if it means putting the track aside. “Coming from New Zealand, to get noticed by teams like Groupama-FDJ, you have to get big results on the track,” he says. “The track was always a pathway for me to establish myself, to get noticed. My ultimate goal has always been to get to the WorldTour and I have completely switched my focus to the road. It’s also where I feel most comfortable now”. Still, his years on the track have an impact on the road rider he is, having a “good sprint” and also being a solid time trialist. For the time being, Laurence Pithie just rules out the “climber” profile and rather likes the “punchy, shorter climbs”. However, the most important thing for him is to remain open to every possibility. “I think this year will already be a good indicator of what type of rider I am,” he says “I hope to do different kinds of races, I don’t want to hold myself to being one sort of rider. We see nowadays that riders are very versatile. It’s always nice to have a good range of skills, and that’s what I aim for”.
As a fan of Tom Boonen and his “aggressive style of racing”, the New Zealander admits having a special liking for the Classics. “These are the most exciting races to watch, compared to the Grand Tours’ stages that could be quite boring,” he smiles. “When you watch the Strade Bianche, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, you never know what’s going to happen next. These are the types of racing that I love to watch and would love to be in one day.” In a way, he already had a taste of it, as his first two races with the team were two semi-Classics in Belgium, namely Le Samyn and the Grand Prix Monseré. These two “Class 1” events proved to be very different from what he was used to. “In New Zealand, a big field is 80 riders,” he explains. “In Le Samyn, there were almost 200, and on small, Belgian roads! It was a really new experience for me, and kind of a hard one to start off with. I did not have a good positionong, but I already had improved on the GP Monseré”. That day, he helped his teammate Rait Ärm get a solid tenth position, but also suffered a big crash on the home stretch. Fortunately, he escaped any major injury.
“Anyway, it was impressive to line up against WorldTour riders,” he concludes. “We were racing so much harder compared to what I had done before. These were really hard races, but that’s also what makes you improve. You learn so much racing against older and more experienced riders. I made a few mistakes in these races, but the main thing is to learn the lessons and fix them for the future”. Three weeks later, he did not make any in the final of the Grand Prix Adria Mobil as he perfectly launched his teammate Marijn van den Berg to the team’s first win of the season, and came 4th himself. His first noteworthy result with his new jersey, and surely not the last.