Entering the 2020 season, Fabian Lienhard was the only rider completely stranger to the Groupama-FDJ organization and he did not have the opportunity to show his new colours in racing for very long. Stopped by the coronavirus crisis, the 26-year-old Swiss nevertheless quickly found his place within his new team. So much so that this Classics lover has lived the past three months with high serenity and confidence. He talks about it in this interview during which he also reveals himself a little more widely to the general public.
Fabian, I heard you are in a training camp with the Swiss National Team. How come?
That is right. We are doing an altitude camp and the hotel is about 2000 meters above sea level. Because of the coronavirus crisis, most teams can’t organize training camps so they asked us if we wanted to take part to this one. Here are eight mountain-bike riders, three or four track riders and three or four road cyclists, including myself. The point is to train well but also take advantage of the altitude as we have a lot of time. It also gives you a goal. Before that, I was three months at home, so meeting other guys and training in a group again is really nice. Considering the situation, we have single rooms and must eat separately, so it’s a bit special, but it’s very good for the head anyway.
“After two weeks in Calpe, I already felt part of this family”
How the last three months have been for you?
I was supposed to go to the Strade Bianche but they cancelled the race three days prior. From that moment on, I was just at home. However, we were lucky in Switzerland to be able to train outside, with one person maximum. Silvan Dillier lives close to me so I was often training with him, but first, the team’s coach told me I could take a 10-days rest and that was a good thing. Then, I did a lot of mountain biking and other stuff. For 2-3 weeks, we could ride for fun only and the weather was really good around here. For about five weeks, we can now train again with more riders. There are a lot of pro cyclists around my place so we always have a good group. It was a shame we could not race, that’s for sure, but it went ok for me as I could go out and not stay home and be on the rollers all the time. Being new to the team with a new coach, it was also good to try new things. Obviously, I want to race, I want to show myself but I can’t be too angry about the situation. I think I made the best of it and I might have more fun on the bicycle than ever before.
Did being a recruit change your approach about the period?
I remember that it was pretty special when I was in Calpe for the first training camp. I was the only guy not having the Groupama-FDJ clothing. However, after these two weeks in Spain, I already felt part of this family. I was also lucky enough to go to Australia with the team. I was there for four weeks with Jussi, the mechanics and six other riders. It was good for fitting in. Otherwise, I might have not known the other guys that much and this long break could have been more complicated. Thanks to the training camp and this Australian campaign, I felt integrated very quickly. I am very happy with my situation in the team despite the fact that I am new. I also had the opportunity to race the opening weekend in Belgium, and I was 12th in Kuurne. It was not a top place but still I was able to show me a little bit to the team. Mentally, it was easier for me to enter this break having already achieved a little something with them. If I had not, I feel like I would have been back to zero when we’ll meet again.
You signed your contract about 9 months ago and only raced 10 days with the team. Is that a strange feeling?
I was supposed to do the Classics with Stefan, among other things. It would have been my first time on these races and I was super motivated all winter long and I was very much looking forward to it. Then it all stopped. When we learned that all the races would be postponed or cancelled, I was very frustrated not to be able to ride with my new teammates. Luckily, having such a good team and such good sponsors helped me to be more relaxed. But yes, I think it would have been very strange if I would have had two or three race days then enter this 4 months break and see no one of the team for so long. Besides Stefan and Kilian, whom I know, I also have contacts with guys from Tour Down Under for example.
“It was my last chance to go WorldTour”
Adjusting to a new team doesn’t require racing if everything else goes well?
Definitely. In the first training camp, I got a first picture of the team in my head. It was really professional but also family friendly. I also notice it in this time without racing. Marc Madiot called me a few times and I don’t think that all team managers call their 28 riders multiple times in this period. We are very lucky to have these good sponsors, who signed long-term contracts with the team. It is a pride to be in a team with such good sponsors, such good team management, trainers and sports directors who call you almost every week and want to make sure that you’re feeling good. It was great to feel so much support over the last few months. Moreover, when they called me, I got the feeling that I was in the team for 2-3 years already. It was not like a “we have to do it” call, more a “he is part of the team” call.
Is this specific to a WorldTeam according do you?
I think the team has got great basics and we, riders can be really relaxed. I know that some other guys who I train with every day are really nervous. They don’t know what is going on with their team next year because of economic issues… As far as we are concerned, it does not seem the team will get through big troubles, so it makes it easier for us to handle these 4 months without racing. During this coronavirus crisis, I told my friends ten times that I made the right choice. I have known other teams and I said to everyone that I was so lucky to be here, that I felt like I got all six numbers right in the Lottery. When I signed the contract, I was already proud because this team has been in cycling forever, but when you hear that they sign long contracts for the big leaders despite the situation, it gives an extra good feeling.
You reached the WorldTour at 26 years old. Did you always aim to get there?
I was an ok-rider in the U23 ranks. I was sixth in World Championships at the time and I went to the BMC Development Team. I was stagiaire in the WorldTour team and always had the dream to reach that level. It never happened. I was doing ok but not good enough to show them how good I was. We also did not have a team in Switzerland anymore since IAM Cycling stopped. Then, if you want to join a team in another country, you pretty much have to be better than the young guys over there. But I love cycling, my father was a cyclist as well and I always kept going. In February last year, my father died. He had cancer for a year and half and I was not completely free mentally during that period, I did not train at all over the previous winter. I was always at the hospital. Being almost 26, I also knew it was kind of my last chance to go WorldTour. After, it’s pretty much over to get your spot in the first league. When my dad passed away, I got a bit more of power and motivation to achieve something. So I gave everything last spring and then got the opportunity to race the Tour de Suisse with the national team. I was three times in the top 10 and could show a little bit what I was capable of. For sure, there was also Stefan… We are the same age, we have raced together for a long time and Marc asked him about me. Stefan told him my story and that I was close to sign a WorldTour contract almost every single year. Eventually, I could join one of the best teams in pro cycling. Actually, I think it is even the best considering how they’re handling this strange season.
“I still feel like a 20-years-old guy”
What were the goals both for you and the team when you signed here?
After the Tour de Suisse, even in the year before, I realized I could be an ok-sprinter, a guy for fast finishes, but I never won a very big race. When they asked me to join the team, considering how I was riding for position, they told me about being a lead-out guy for another rider. Eventually for Marc Sarreau. I was like « this is something I can do really well if they give me some time to learn ». Also, right after the first call with Marc Madiot, Stefan called me and told me I could get the chance to be part of the Classics group. These two purposes were exciting to me. I am not really the guy who says « I want to win the biggest races ». I really like to help others. It is my mentality and I know they also like this kind of rider in this team. It is not just about results.
Did you also expect and hope to reach another level as a rider?
Definitely. I was at BMC for a year where it was really professional but I was also in smaller teams afterwards. When you are in a bigger team, you just have the whole thing that makes you a better rider. You have your personal coach, a performance manager, you get a better support in the races… If you are 26 and have the opportunity to join a program like that, you will be a better rider after one or two years for sure. Hopefully that will be my case too. Two years ago, it was difficult for me because I got some results but I couldn’t sign in a big team. Now I did it, and considering my path, I feel like I could be more motivated than a guy who would sign the same contract at 19. I still feel like a 20-years-old guy and I hope I still have a lot of years ahead of me to learn and get better physically. I’m just happy to be part of this team and to be in the situation I am in.
“Kuurne is a cool story”
How did you feel overall in your first races?
It was super cool at the Tour Down Under. I could learn a lot with Jacopo about this job I will have to do over the next months. He is a super nice guy and tells you all the tips you need to know for the lead-out role. Also, I usually was one of the underdogs against the “big boys”. Now I was now one of the big boys, and you get more respect in the sprint with the Groupama-FDJ jersey than when you ride for a Pro Conti team. In the opening weekend, I struggled a bit with positioning and did not know the course really well at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. However, the day after, I already knew a bit more how to ride and I was really surprised that I could take 12 at the finish. It’s not a super good result but when you see the guys ahead of me, it was still decent for a guy new in the WorldTour and in his team. That was pretty special for me. I was proud to be in this jersey and having guys like Stefan Küng or Tobias Ludvigsson in front of me for the final kilometers. When these guys help you, you want to be on the first page of the results, but then when you take a step back, you realize that it is not that bad. I was also here to help Marc [Sarreau], but he was sick that day and they told me 20km from the finish that I could do my sprint. I was new to the team, here to help and eventually had the opportunity to ride for my own result. It’s a cool story. I was a bit disappointed in the bus but Marc [Madiot] came inside and said « for your first weekend in Belgium, 12th is pretty ok ». If the big boss tells you this, it might not be so bad.
Are the cobbles Classics the races you want to head towards?
I love the mentality and the atmosphere of the Flanders Classics. I did a lot of cyclocross when I was younger so I spent a lot of time training on those roads. I know some of the climbs and even did the Koppenbergcross as U23. Watching the spring Classics on TV has always been the best time of the year. I finally have this chance to tell my friends « I’m going to the Classics ». I was envious when older guys would say the same thing to me before. I was like « I want to do it as well ». To me, they are better than any other race. Sunday-to-Sunday, you got these big races in Belgium. It means something special for a cyclist. For sure, cyclocross helped me in terms of bike handling but I need more experience. It is different to discover them at 22 than at 26. For next year, I will for sure invest myself even more to know the courses etc… Still, I felt that I was already improving in Kuurne.
What role do you aim for within the team?
My first goal is to learn as fast as possible in order to be one of the best lead-out guys. I really want to be a good lead-out man for Marc and help him win a lot of races. Besides that, Stefan signed for three years and as I said before, I really love the Classics. When you see how Stefan made a step forward when he joined the team last year, I hope to become a good Classics rider as well thanks to his motivation and professionalism. We want to build a good team for the Classics and to be alongside him in the very heart of the races in the future.