From the Remarkables Mountains, near his birthplace, to the Alps, where a larger audience recently discovered him, Reuben Thompson’s path is most unique. The 20-year-old New Zealander was not originally meant for a cycling career and yet has just won one of the most important events on the U23 calendar. Let’s get to know the young man from Queenstown better.
“Bikes have always been around,” says Reuben Thompson when starting the interview. Yet his way into professional cycling is more about opportunities than a long-term objective. As a child, he first got on a BMX along with the other kids of the neighbourhood. “Every day after school and on the weekends, that was all we did,” he remembers. His mother rode a horse, his father rode a motorbike, and he chose to ride a bicycle. Not only, though. “Growing up, my parents let me do everything and anything. I played ice hockey, rugby, football; I did skiing, snowboarding, motocross, tennis… You name it, I have probably done it”, he smiles. However, the triathlon ultimately won him over around the age of thirteen. “There were a lot of races for kids in my area,” he explains. “A really good friend took me in the first races, and I liked it right away. At first it was completely for fun, it was not serious at all.” At first only. After a few months of practice, the New Zealander got a coach, a “proper road bike” and started racing really competitively. “I was enjoying it, and I found it was easier to be good at it compared to other sports,” he adds. At the same time, he discovered the “freedom and independence” offered by going out on a bike, on his own, exploring around his local area. Coming from Queenstown, on the South Island of New Zealand, Reuben Thompson indeed gets the chance to ride in quite an idyllic setting, mixing lakes and mountains. “The best place to train for cycling in all the country,” he says, maybe being slightly biased.
An unexpected switch from triathlon to cycling
His daily training, covering three disciplines, paid off quite quickly. In his junior years (three in number in triathlon), Reuben Thompson started to shine on the national scene and narrowly missed a qualification for the Youth Olympic Games of Buenos Aires, in 2018. The following year, he continued to make a name for himself and won his national championship. However, it did not prove enough to convince Triathlon New Zealand to grant him a place for the Worlds Championships. This was the first turning point – perhaps even the most important – in his sporting career. “I was not selected because they wanted to give guys with more experience a chance, telling me that I would have the opportunity to do the Worlds Championships in the following years,” said Reuben. “But in the beginning of 2019, I was all finished with school and wanted to be a professional triathlete and really go all-in with it. I had been working quite a lot for it, but Triathlon New Zealand was not making it really possible for me, and I was not super patient either. There were not many opportunities and not a lot of funding”. Looking to bounce back from this disappointment, the young Kiwi came up with a bold project a few weeks later. “I was also doing a bit of road racing in New Zealand”, he says. “In May 2019, I decided to put together a cycling CV with my results, my power numbers, and send it to French junior teams. I wanted to find an opportunity to get to Europe”.
His audacious call got an answer. A team from Brittany, the Vélo Sport Valletais, soon offered to welcome him. “They were super happy to take me on, find me a house, feed me and make me race,” says Reuben. At just 18, he settled for the first time in France in June 2019. However, although starting a new experience, the course still remained clear for him. “I jumped on that opportunity and started cycling properly, but at that time I was still planning to come back to triathlon after two months. I didn’t think I would be putting triathlon aside for good”. And yet, after just a few weeks, he decided to “give it a crack”. Until then, the New Zealander considered himself a good cyclist in triathlon, but rather saw running as his main strength. When he landed in Europe, he discovered an untapped potential. “Once I arrived in France, I was racing a few times a week and picked up four wins in one month or so,” he continues. “It was going really well, I was really enjoying it. In New Zealand I was doing well in road races. I was third in the national time trial championship, but as most of the races in New Zealand are flat, there were a lot of bunch sprints and it did not really suit me. When I came to France and got to do the likes of the Ain Bugey Valromey Tour with 30-minute climbs, I found my strength in the sport. Before, I really did not know. I grew up in a very mountainous area, and I have always enjoyed riding the long climbs, but I had never had the opportunity to race on them before getting to France.”
“La Conti ticked all the boxes”
Despite his young age, Reuben Thompson managed the transition away from his family and friends fairly well, as he had previously lived “1000 kilometers from home” for two years. He therefore was in the best condition to show his cycling abilities during his French stay. He scored two stage podiums on the Ain Bugey Valromey Tour, where he finished sixth overall, took fourth place in the Tour de la Vallée de la Trambouze and finished on the podium at the Grand Prix de Plouay Juniors. All that in about one month and a half. The final click came a little later, when several U23 teams got in touch with him after his various performances. “When offers came around, I remember being pretty clear thinking: no I’m not coming back to triathlon, I want to do cycling. When I saw that I had the potential to be a pro, I don’t think it was ever a question that I would stay in cycling or not. Since then, it has been everything for cycling”. What was supposed to be only an “experience” in Europe therefore became an unexpected source of opportunity, which he had not previously had in his own country. In the winter 2020, he then signed with Team Monti, which was set to become the development team of Deceuninck-Quick Step. However, the structure did not see the light of day due to lack of funding, and the New Zealander found a fallback solution in Spain with the amateur team of Telcom-On Clima-Osés Const.
At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic was spreading in Europe. “I came over in March, I did one week of racing and we saw on the news that Spain was going to enter into a full lockdown,” tells the young man. “At that time there was no Covid in New Zealand, so I flew back home. The start of 2020 was looking really gloomy for me, but I took advantage of this long break to build myself an engine. Because I come from triathlon, I was a bit struggling after four hours of racing, so I came home with the mindset to train harder than ever before. That’s exactly what I did”. Shortly after his return in the Pacific Ocean, contacts were also established with the Conti Groupama-FDJ and Reuben was already convinced after completing his phone call with Jens Blatter. “It was just… wow,” he says. “It seemed too good to be true. The team seemed super professional, the race program suited me perfectly… There was just no reason not to sign, everything ticked the boxes. I also really liked the idea of coming back to a French team. It was just all perfect”. In May, the agreement was set, which “was very amazing to be secured for the following year”. He returned to Europe for two months during the summer, netted some nice results in the Spanish amateur calendar, and then got back to New Zealand with peace of mind. “Coming from triathlon, 2020 was just a big year of learning and improvement,” he says. “In the end, it turned out super good. I was able to get used to the European style of racing, which is very different from the New Zealand one. Back home, you don’t have 120 guys fighting for a sprint or at the bottom of a climb”.
First steps with the WorldTeam and too short transfers
In November 2020, he actually met his fellow countrymen at the Tour of Southland, which is considered to be the “fourth Grand Tour” in New Zealand. “If you ask a Kiwi,” added Reuben, “all the races that we do in Europe all year are only training for this race.” In good shape himself, the young man won HIS stage, in the Remarkables, above his hometown. “It’s really a difficult climb, even though we only went halfway,” he continues. “I know it like the back of my hand, my family was there, and winning in front of them made it even more special. It was really great to finish the year with a victory and it gave me a lot of motivation to work hard in January, February and March before the first races started with the Conti”. Prior to his return to Europe, Reuben Thompson secured fifth place in his time trial championship and tenth in the road race. In Besançon, the team’s headquarters, he immediately felt at ease. “It’s a luxury,” he says. “I have my own apartment, my own kitchen, my equipment, and everything I need within reach…” He also has – and this is not insignificant -, another Kiwi by his side with Laurence Pithie, whom he already knew a bit from before. “New Zealand is too small not to know each other,” he smiles. As far as the races are concerned, everything started with Paris-Troyes and the GP Adria Mobil, which did not suit him so much. But then came the Giro del Belvedere where he took a decent sixteenth place, just a few seconds behind his mates Alexandre Balmer (3rd) and Antoine Raugel (5th).
After only three races with the Conti, he was provisionally promoted to the WorldTeam, at the Tour of the Alps. “When I was told in February that I would be going there, I was quite nervous and afraid, I guess,” he confesses. “I didn’t think I was at the required level to be able to race there. However, I trained really well, I got there really well prepared, and had the mindset to go for the breakaways and try to get the KOM jersey.” He put his plan into action and managed to take the front in stages two and three, grabbing a few mountains points in the process. “But my youth caught up with me on days 4 and 5. I was more or less finished,” he points out. Alongside Thibaut Pinot and some of the top names in world cycling, the native of Queenstown was still blown away: “It was a really cool week, I was able to meet the guys from the WorldTeam for the first time, and I just sort of realized that I was capable of that level, or not too far. It was my first real stage race in Europe, and just because how cool that was, I wanted to work even more to hopefully go WorldTour in the future.” He nevertheless underlines one bad side in the Tour of the Alps. “This race has probably the shortest transfers in the world of cycling,” he smiles. “I think the longest we had was twenty minutes… I was a little disappointed because it was my first time ever on a team bus and I did not get to fully enjoy the experience!”
Disappointment then redemption
Following this experience with the “big boys”, Reuben Thompson returned to the Conti and took sixteenth place in the Alpes Isère Tour ahead of his main goal of the season, the Baby Giro. However, the latter did not go as hoped. Although he put on a good time trial (14th), the New Zealander suffered some bad days, and also crashed on stage 8, which prevented him from getting a possible top-10 in the general classification. “Overall, it was a very disappointing race for me,” he confirms. “I came there with big ambitions, I trained really hard for it and expected a lot from myself. It really wasn’t what I hoped for, but I learnt a lot from this week and how to approach a stage race. On the climbs, I was also a little afraid to follow the attacks and go into the red zone. I potentially missed out on a stage win just because I didn’t want to go above my threshold. I was too focused on my power numbers, but it was a useful experience for the future”. A month later, he got to the start of the Giro della Valle d’Aosta with a completely different mentality and a desire for “redemption”. It also came after a few weeks of altitude training in Tignes, where he borrowed… Thibaut Pinot’s apartment. Whether it was a coincidence or a sign, the New Zealander won the Italian event a few days later, like the Frenchman did twelve years before.
On the attack in the opening stage, Reuben Thompson took second before conquering the yellow jersey the next day to Cervinia. He eventually kept it without too many problems on the third and last stage, thus writing his name on one of the most prestigious races for the Under-23 riders. “I feel like a bit of an impostor,” he says. “I do not feel anywhere near the level of Thibaut Pinot, Sivakov or Aru … But I wanted to prove something to myself. Above all, it’s a motivation to see that everything I’ve done, all the work I’ve put in, is working. It was rather a relief after the start of the season which wasn’t what I hoped for”. A week later, the young man turned into a lieutenant for Sébastien Reichenbach at the Tour Alsace, where the Swiss man took second place overall. “It was a really good experience to ride for him and have this type of role,” Reuben adds. “It was really amazing there and I was fortunate enough to share my room with Seb, who is a super nice guy”. Among his elders, the Kiwi rider has also bonded with Thibaut Pinot, something he “still finds crazy”. “I remember watching him on TV on the Tour two years ago, I even remember seeing him in person for the first time on stage sixteen. I was just idolizing the guy, and now I know him, he occasionally replies to my stories on Instagram,” Reuben smiles. “He’s been a big support for me this year. He was really great on the Tour of the Alps and it was really amazing to be able to use his apartment”.
“I’ve been having too much fun with cycling to look back”
Just like the Frenchman, the “All-Black” is really into mountainous races. “Especially after the Giro della Valle d’Aosta, I’ve realized that the longer the climbs, the better for me,” he confirms. “It was the hardest route I’ve ever raced on, and I liked it more than any other I have ever done. It really suited me”. That being said, and although he barely tried track cycling despite being a New Zealander, Reuben Thompson has also showed some real ability in the time trial. “I really like time trialling and put a lot of work into it,” he said. “I realize that it is super important if I want to be a good GC rider, which is my goal. For that, you need to be well-rounded. Even if I want to keep my climbing strength, I also want to be good in the time trial”. He might be tempted by a few Classics in the future but still need to figure out if they can suit him. In the meantime, stage races and in particular the Grand Tours are his priorities. “I love the idea of going away for three weeks and just eat, sleep and ride your bike. I don’t think it can get any better! I can’t wait to find out”. As a true passionate about his former sport, Reuben definitely did not miss the triathlon events at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. However, without a single doubt, his years of practice are behind him. “I have absolutely no regrets,” he says. “I’m having the time of my life, I’m living a dream and the racing is going well. I’ve been having too much fun with cycling to look back”.