Few riders entering the WorldTour this season will get as much attention as Lenny Martinez. The 19-year-old Frenchman, coming from an outstanding 2022 season with “La Conti”, is now highly expected among the “big boys” with the Groupama-FDJ cycling team. He knows it, and is willing to live up to the expectations, as he proved already in the Grand Prix La Marseillaise (9th). Before coming back to racing, the lightweight climber spoke about his ambitions and his personality.

Lenny, how have you been since the Grand Prix La Marseillaise?

I’m doing well! I was happy to do well in my first race with the team. Then, I trained well, the shape is good, and I am ready to tackle the next races. There was a small setback with the cancellation of the Tour of Antalya. I would have liked to race there and try to get a result, but I also know that I can improve my form quite well through training. I think I’m about the same level, if not a little higher, than before the Grand Prix La Marseillaise. It’s gradually improving.

“With the Conti guys, we progress together”

What are you expecting from this weekend in Drôme-Ardèche?

Everything will depend on the team briefing and on what will happen in the race. If I can help someone in the team to get a result, I will, and if I ever have my chance given certain circumstances, I’ll take it without thinking. The team will have a lot of options with David, Romain, Bruno, Quentin. It can be an advantage.

You team-up with some former colleagues of the “Conti” and with more experienced riders at this start of the season. Is this the ideal combination?

With the Conti guys, we reached the highest level together, and we continue to progress and evolve together. With Enzo, for example, we took our first result at La Marseillaise, as we both entered the top-10. It’s always easier for the team spirit to be with guys you know well, even if once in the race, you don’t think too much about it. So, we are progressing together, but we are also learning a lot from the older riders of the team, who are not old but more experienced (smiles). I think it’s a really good mix.

What will be the rest of your program?

Right after the Boucles Drôme Ardèche, there will be the Trofeo Laigueglia, then I will compete in the Volta a Catalunya, where I want to be in great shape because it is my first goal. In April, I will race Paris-Camembert, the Classic Grand Besançon, the Tour du Jura, the Tour du Doubs and the Tour de Romandie. Then, I should take part in the Mercan’Tour and the Critérium du Dauphiné.

“It could be good to go for the overall in some races”

The Volta a Catalunya is therefore your first goal. What will be your ambitions?

We targeted it with my coach Nicolas Boisson, I saw the profiles, and it seems to me that it will be really hard. I hope to be in good shape, and if that is so, why not get a result? It is not unlikely that I’ll have small personal ambitions, but we will also need to see what the team’s line-up will be. That said, if my coach has planned it as a goal in terms of shape, it probably means that I will be able to have my chance, as should have been the case in Antalya. For now, I don’t have any specific goals at all, I rather focus first on the upcoming races. We will figure that out before the race, and throughout the race depending on how it pans out. Of course, it would be interesting to fight for the overall, and win a stage even more. However, it’s still a big step to make… Anyway, I think it could be good to go for the overall in some races, to try to be up there every day, in order to learn for the future, even if I’m not yet among the very best.

Do you realize that you can already be an option on some races?

I am aware of it. I know that it is possible that I have my chance a few times, but I should also race a lot with David, and the goal will then be to help him as much as possible. Everything will depend on each race, where I am in terms of form, and the team’s line-up. You’re also more likely to have your chance when you have already shown that you are going strong. You have to prove yourself when you get the chance. That said, the team doesn’t put any pressure on me. They told me that it was still a first year, in the WorldTour, that it was something big, and that I had to discover above all. However, they also told me that if there were opportunities to get results, why not seize them? I think the same way. Why deprive yourself? If I feel capable of going for the top spots, I shouldn’t tell myself “be careful, you have to learn” just because I’m in my first year.

Do you feel ready to take on responsibilities?

I feel ready, but it also depends on the race (smiles). The positive thing is that I have had the experience with the Conti. It’s obviously another world, but I already had the opportunity to discover what the leader status was like in a stage race last season. I don’t tell myself that I absolutely have to be the leader in this race or that race, but it’s in the back of my mind. If the team asks me, I’m ready to assume it.

“My confidence is twice or three times higher today than at the start of 2022”

17 décembre 2022 – Calpe – Espagne – Lenny Martinez

Do your performances with the WorldTour team last year, on the Tour of the Alps, the Mercan’Tour, help you from this point of view?

For sure. The more results you achieve, the more confidence you have for the future to assume a leadership role. Having already performed well at this level as a Conti rider is reassuring. I pretty much know what to expect in some races, but obviously less so in others like the Dauphiné where the level is even higher. Anyway, I’m certainly less apprehensive coming to the races. If I hadn’t raced with the WorldTour in 2022, I would have asked myself a lot of questions: how fast is it going uphill, what is the level, will I be able to keep up? Instead, I saw that I was already there last year being a Conti rider, so I think I can do even better this year.

In the past, you said that you didn’t really have the “soul of a leader” yet.

It’s true, and I’m going to have to work on it, but I also think it’s something that will come naturally and gradually. For now, with the WorldTour team, I obviously rather listen to the experienced riders, take their advice. I don’t feel ready, and I don’t think this is the time to impose my ideas. By nature, Romain [Grégoire] is for instance quite the opposite of me. That said, I also know that once in the race, in the climbs, there is no longer “being shy”. Of course, I am aware of it, but I think it will improve over the races, with me having responsibilities and performing well. For now, at this stage of my career, I don’t see it as a major problem.

“There is no longer being shy in the climbs”. Does it mean you hope for the legs to do the talking?

Actually, I discovered at the end of last year that the leader status was not just that. This is also pushing everyone up and really making your teammates want to work for you. At the Tour de l’Avenir, I remember having learned a lot from this point of view, and it proved useful afterwards. I learned that you really need to have confidence in yourself, sometimes even trying to do crazy things like we did at the Baby Giro. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Romain, for example, will often try to open up the race early, to create a bit of chaos. I was probably more of a “wait-and-see” rider before, but over the year, I started to be more aggressive and got this zeal to win. Sometimes leadership means taking initiative. During the briefings in the Conti, they would sometimes tell me: “you can attack from the bottom, you can win, do this, do that”. I was more doubtful, but by pushing me like that, little by little, I understood that it was possible. In the end, I think my confidence is twice or three times higher today than at the start of the season with the Conti. All the events of last season, all the results, all the races, gave me confidence. I noticed it at the start of the season already. I’m not the same as last year from this point of view.

“You have to keep your feet on the ground and make your own way”

Do you think you can take inspiration from the team’s leaders?

I obviously don’t want to become a copy of David, for example, but I surely learn a lot during a briefing with him, or with Thibaut. I listen to everything that is said. You also learn a lot from the way a leader speaks, how he talks to his teammates, how he behaves in the race. By being by their side, I also hope to improve to become a true leader.

There is some excitement about you. How do you deal with it?

I appreciate that, but you should also know to detach yourself from it. Last year, I was watching a lot of what was said about me on social media. A lot is going on there, and 95% of it was positive, but I’ve learned to draw away from that this year. I think it is important, especially for the future. I have never received anything offensive or insulting, but it rather is a long-term approach. If it keeps going well, or if it gets even better, having this habit already will be a good thing. When you become a great rider, like David or Thibaut, you probably have better things to do. Until now, these were rather nice comments like “he’s going strong, he’s a future champion, etc”. But I think you also have to detach yourself from it because there are also a lot of things like “the future French winner of the Tour de France”. I just want to live my life, go training. You have to keep your feet and the ground and make your own way. I see that there are lots of expectations of me, but I’ve always said “we’ll see”, and it always went well. So let’s continue like this.

So this attention is not oppressive for you?

In the end, I think it’s something normal. Expectations also stimulate you to do even better, but the most important is always not to lose your head. Overall, I take it more as a positive thing than as a negative one. Sometimes, I also have the feeling that we, as riders, don’t realize what we are achieving on the bike. We train, we perform in races, but we don’t always realize the expectations that come with it. I think they come from the fact that we are young, that we perform well, and people necessarily have hopes for the future, especially for the Tour. Sometimes it makes me smile, like when some people analyse and make calculations about me and my rides.

“It should be fine if I take a step forward”

We know you are a pure climber, but how do you see yourself evolving going forward?

It would be nice to have a more complete profile, but I know I will never be a sprinter or a time trial specialist. I think that over the years, I will keep my qualities as a climber while getting punchier. I also see myself becoming a rider who competes for the general classification. The sequences of stages, the long weeks of racing with climbs, that’s what I like. I also think I will gain power from year to year. I don’t want to compare myself with David, but I know that he was also very light when he came in the team. He managed to gain power and he can now fight on the Tour de France. I would like to follow this way.

If we talk about general classification, we necessarily have to talk about time trial, fighting for position, endurance… Are these areas of improvement?

Yes, of course. I want to improve on the time trial, but the goal will always be to lose as little time as possible. Last year, I saw that I wasn’t that bad in the U23 French championship, but it will be very different when I’ll come across Ganna, Evenepoel or Pogacar… Over the years, I hope to lose less and less time. Fighting for position is something that I’m gradually learning, but I still have to work on it. It’s already much better than previous years. It’s like riding in the echelons. You learn as you practice. With my build, it’s quite simply difficult to find my place when it’s going really fast in a flat final. I am about fifty kilos, the others are 70 or more. I was also saying earlier that I was hoping to gain some power, but there is no doubt, I will get some. I already did last year. On stages of 160 kilometres on the Ronde de l’Isard, I was still fresh at the finish, and I feel that I have also made a lot of progress from this point of view.

Do you have a precise plan for the years to come?

More or less. The primary goal we have with my coach is to keep and further improve my climbing, without neglecting the time trial or the sprint. Now, I don’t set myself any limits for this first year. We will take stock at the end of the season. The ideal scenario would simply be to make a step forward, to be even stronger. From what I saw in the races I took part in last year, it should be fine if I take a step forward. Getting results can eventually become a goal, but I don’t want to go too far and mention winning. To be close to winning a few times, to be consistent over the year, to achieve good results and to help the team well, that would already be great.

“La Vuelta, a great challenge”

Are you also looking forward to racing against the big names?

It’s super exciting to compete against the greatest riders, and it will enable me to know what I still need to do, but I’m still super young. If I managed to be with them this year, it would be a little weird (smiles). If I’m not as strong as them this season, I think it’s quite normal, and I still have a lot of time to improve. For example, I don’t tell myself “Pogacar won the Tour at that age, so I should too in the next few years”. I don’t think you should compare yourself. There is only one Pogacar, only one Evenepoel. I just want to keep progressing at my own pace and we’ll see where that takes me.

You could already participate in the Vuelta this season. Did you expect it?

No, I was a little surprised to be honest. But as soon as they said they wanted to send a youth team to the Vuelta, I thought “oh…”. I think it’s a great challenge for this year. I want to thank the team for their trust in the youngsters from the Conti. I really don’t know how I can go over three weeks, but I think I will be able to get an idea after doing a few week-long stage races during the season. And it’s of course even more motivating to think that we will probably be several ex-Conti at the start.

What is your biggest worry starting your first year with the “big boys”??

Actually, I was worried about getting in the WorldTour and being smashed from the first races. I told myself that struggling was a possibility, but I saw on the Marseillaise that it was going rather well. Even if I had already done some races, I had to be prepared for this eventuality. I am more confident today.

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