with Sébastien Reichenbach

“I don’t want to fail on the Giro”

A valuable mountain domestique to Thibaut Pinot since he joined the Groupama-FDJ cycling team back in 2016, Sébastien Reichenbach will start the Giro in early may without his usual leader. The 31-year-old Swiss will therefore begin his eighth Grand Tour with quite a new approach. As he gets to the final part of his build-up through “his” Tour de Romandie, the Valais resident talked about his start to the season, Thibaut’s withdrawal and his goals for the coming weeks.

Sébastien, how do you feel before this Tour de Romandie?

Not bad! I’ve just finished a good block of preparation for the intense month that is lying ahead. The Tour de Romandie is the last step of my build-up and should enable me to reach the top of my form for the Giro. I think I’m in good shape, but I’m still missing what you can’t reproduce in training: race days and race rhythm.

“To have fun and to test myself on the Tour de Romandie”

You just have ten days of racing in 2021. How has been your start to the season?

I actually felt pretty good at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, I had been around someone who had the Covid before the Tour du Haut-Var, so I could not compete in this race, which would have done me good. I was also planned to take part in two rounds of the French Cup, but they eventually got cancelled. That partly explains my low number of racing days, but the purpose was still to be quite fresh for the Giro. I’ve never been very fond of the start of the season anyway. I am more of a spring/summer rider than a winter one. I came in good condition in Cataluña, but I clearly missed some strength and pace compared to the rest of the bunch. I felt better and better as the days passed. I was not worried at all about my performance level. I knew I would get there, especially since I had done a great winter and that I usually need to race in order to perform well. It was then planned to take a little break after Cataluña, as I already had four months of preparation in the legs. It was the last moment to reset before starting the last push to the Giro. I resumed training with good loads at first and then focusing on intensity exercises.

Since you’re at the start of a new sequence, do you have moderated ambitions this week?

When you focus on the Giro, you can’t be at 100% on the Tour de Romandie, or you would take the risk to really struggle in the second part of the Tour of Italy. I expect not to be at my full potential on the first stages of this Tour de Romandie. Rather, I aim to have fun and test myself on one or two stages. It will also help me to understand better how to approach the Giro. Saturday, in particular, there is a huge mountain stage with a very nice and new finish, 2000m above sea level. I would like to spend a little less energy the previous days in order to get to this stage in the best possible conditions and see where I stand. Personally, I won’t aim for the general classification. Either way, the team’s goal will mostly be to win stages. We have good cards here with Stefan, Jake, and we will also be four very motivated Swiss riders lining up. Matteo, for instance, showed good things at the Tour of Catalonia, where there was a very competitive field. He will also have opportunities this week and will be able to show his climbing qualities on Saturday.

How important was it for you to be at the start of your “home” race?

It was my own wish to be here. This was also planned last season but the race had been cancelled. We have some great stage races here in Switzerland, but we can’t come every year and it’s always a bit heartbreaking to watch them on TV. I’m obviously very motivated, especially because there are stages around my home, on my training roads. I almost know all the routes. This is an extra motivation for sure. I was given the opportunity to come this year so I seized it. That being said, it’s not easy to manage either, since the Giro is the main goal and comes just a week later. In 2017, I also raced the two events one after the other and had a good Giro. I hope history will repeat itself.

“Thibaut tried to keep his goal alive”

The Giro, however, will go underway without Thibaut this year…

Unfortunately, things have been complicated for him since the start of the year. He can’t find a solution to his back pain, and he has often kept us updated on his progress. He knew all the way it could prove too difficult for the Giro. It’s hard to watch him suffer like this, especially because I believe he had the required shape. There were some positive signals during the training camp I did with him in Gran Canaria earlier this year. He was starting to get good feelings back. We thought it was going in the right direction. In Drôme-Ardèche, he looked good too. However, from the start of the Tour of the Alps on, he told us that the pain had strongly returned. We understood that it did not look good…

How did you look at this whole situation?

What impressed me the most with Thibaut is that he trained for the Giro as if he was going to make it, as if the pain was going to pass, even though he had a hard time and he was in pain on the Italian races (Trofeo Laigueglia, Tirreno-Adriatico, editor’s note). Deep down, he probably knew that it couldn’t heal that fast, but he still put in heavy trainings, good weeks of work, in order to try to keep his goal alive. I really think he was in good physical condition. Unfortunately, he cannot use it, as we witnessed it on the last day of the Tour of the Alps. The legs are there, he did what he had to do, but his back doesn’t leave him alone. I hope he can recover soon. Now he has to take time in order to come back to 100% of his capacities.

How much does his withdrawal change your approach to the Giro?

Personally, it will be the first time since I’m on this team that I’ll start a Grand Tour without Thibaut, and even without a leader. It will be very different for sure. When you come with a leader who has specific goals, the stages come fast one after the other. You are always focused because every stage is important. Not having this common thread will be something really new for me. This time, it seems that there will not be a centrepiece within the team and we will be more focused on stage victories. The breakaways will be very important for us but we will also have to remain focused on the days that don’t interest us. It is usually when you are too relaxed that you can make mistakes. On such days, the main thing for us will be to recover and look further. It will be a new experience for several guys on the team.

“It will necessarily pay off one day”

Fortunately, you also have a bit of time to mentally prepare for this new approach.

It’s obviously better to know it two weeks prior. For sure, it is much more difficult to change your strategy once you’re in the heart of the race. When everything falls apart for your leader during the event, and that you don’t have to ride for him overnight, it’s a hard blow you need to be able to swallow first. In this case, the hard blow occurred two weeks before the start and we will therefore be able to get to the race with a good state of mind and with new goals. We have to turn this hard blow into opportunities. We cannot say to ourselves: “we are starting without a leader, it will be long”. In spite of everything, there will be great things to look for over these three weeks. We will just need to get into the right momentum straight away.

Thibaut not being here doesn’t make the Giro less important?

No, the Giro still is a very big goal for this season. Personally, this is my favourite race and I don’t want to fail there. Like other guys on the team, I trained all winter thinking about the Giro, I love this race and I will do everything to win a stage there. We will have a great team for that purpose. We will clearly go there to throw our hands in the air and we actually have to win at least one stage on this Giro. We also know that Thibaut will be our first supporter. He will for sure follow it, although I know it will hurt him because he loves this race so much. He might not watch everything, but he will probably crack for the mountain stages and I already know he will text us in the evening to motivate us.

You’re personally talking about a stage victory. Does it mean the general classification is not part of your plans?

It’s not something I intend to go for. At my age (32 years old on May 28, editor’s note), it is more important to try to win a stage than to fight for an overall top 10. Even more if you do it and eventually come short, being 12th at the end, which would be a great disappointment. When you go for the overall, it’s very hard to aim for big results. And then, at the end of the three weeks, you put everything on the table and you realize that you haven’t achieved much… At this point in my career, I would rather do everything to raise my arms. I have often come close with breakaways on the Grand Tours. I have already done podiums, tops 5. I just need that last bit of luck and I aim to take my chances.

Is it also a way of racing you like more?

When you try to go for the GC, you know that against the best in the world, you can hope for a ninth place at best atop of a climb. It’s less exciting than going on a breakaway that fights for the stage victory. Every guy who rides a bike is looking for that victory’s adrenaline rush. That’s why I ride a bike too, I also want to experience those kinds of moments. I know that I am now closer to the end of my career than to the beginning. I don’t have so many opportunities and seasons left to try to win the races I’m dreaming about. I also know how to do it now, how to manage a Grand Tour well, how to take a breakaway that 90% of the bunch is willing to take. These things come with experience. I tell myself that it will necessarily pay off one day. Someday, all the stars will align for me.

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