The end of a long tunnel of setbacks seems finally there for Lars van den Berg. Unlucky during his first two years with the Groupama-FDJ cycling team, the 25-year-old Dutchman is now heading towards his second Giro, two years after a promising first participation. Confident after a solid campaign in the Ardennes, the young man not only wants to do well along Thibaut Pinot, but also hopes the Giro will start a proper momentum for the rest of his career.

Lars, how do you feel a few days before the start of the Giro?

At the moment, I’m really excited. I’ve just finished packing my bags and I really look forward to leaving tomorrow and to being part of this team at the start. I hope we’ll do really great. Last year, I missed the Vuelta at the last minute, so it’s really nice to be back now in the squad for a Grand Tour again. It’s also really great to come back to my original level, after all the crashes I had over the last years. It’s a great opportunity to reach my highest level again.

“I believe we can do something great on the Giro”

Was it your own will to be back there?

We spoke about my program in the winter, and actually, the team first told me about the Giro. I was happy with it straight away, but then I crashed in Bessèges, had a fracture in my arm, and I was a little bit afraid. At the end, everything turned out fine and I was in form in the last races, so nothing could hold me back. It was my main goal for the past six months, so I’m happy to be here.

What is your ambition going there?

I know Thibaut will be there for the general classification, and I hope for him we can do very well, also because it will be his last Giro. I’ll have to support him, but I also look to stages that suit me really well. If there are opportunities, I’ll take them with both hands, try to go in the break and go for a great result. The team is very clear about what the goals are and I’m certainly down for it!

Do you feel a particular excitement being together with Thibaut for his last Giro?

For sure. I watched Thibaut from television doing great stuff on the bike as a young kid. Now I’m his teammate, doing his last Giro with him, so it’s really special. I hope he, I and the whole team will enjoy it as much as possible. It’s just a great motivation to be honest. I don’t feel an extra-stress. Maybe he does, but I don’t. I just wanted to perform anyway, whether it was his last or first Giro. For me, at the end of the day, it’s about performing and supporting him and the team. I’ve been focusing on the Giro since the beginning of the year, so I have a lot of motivation to do really well. I really believe we can do great things. I saw already in the winter, in training camp, that he was really really motivated, and was training hard. I believed since the start of the season that he was going to do well for his final year, and I still believe that we can do something great on the Giro.

“I feel really ready and fresh”

What have you learnt from the Giro two years ago that will be useful this year?

Maybe that I need to go a bit easier sometimes once my work is done, and save some energy for the days where I want to go in the break and when this energy is needed. In 2021, I was in a break that went to the finish, but I did not have the legs that day. For the rest, it’s a race like any other race, just a bit longer (smile). There will be a very high level for sure, but I’ll just do what I always do, and it will be ok.

And how different are you from two years ago?

I think I’m stronger now. Last time, I was just coming back from injury, I missed a little bit of shape. Now, I think that I’ve done a really nice block. I feel really ready and fresh to start the Giro. That’s the big difference in terms of level. For sure, I’m a bit more mature now. I did two more years at the highest level, and I’ll also take that with me to the Giro.

So, is your shape where you wanted it to be?

The Ardennes Classics went well. I missed just a little bit of racing in the legs, but I think I’ll get the rhythm in the first week of the Giro, then I hope to be really good in the second and third weeks. After the Ardennes, I did two days off the bike, some easy rides, then I did some training. It was more to maintain the form until the start, we did not do any specific work. I also had the opportunity to spend some time with the family and it was really nice.

“I didn’t feel that I could bring to the team what I would usually be able to”

Did being up there in the Classics give you confidence approaching the Giro?

Yes, I was quite happy to be on the attack in the Amstel Gold Race, but I also felt that the legs were getting empty after 200 kilometres, which I think is normal when you see the preparation I had. I think I did a good race for what was possible at that time, and I was already feeling better regarding the distance one week later on Liège, when I entered the breakaway. The progress has increased very fast with some racing in the legs, and I think I was missing just a few percentages. It was really good to have this racing done towards the Giro, mostly because the start of the season was really disappointing. After I already missed last year, I missed the start of the season again after my crash in Bessèges. It was frustrating, but I tried to stay positive, and I trained really hard to come back to racing with a decent level. In the end, it’s sometimes the life of a bike rider. You need to accept it, continue, stay positive and make the best out of it.

Would you say this start to the season sums up a bit the start of your pro career with the team, with unfortunate setbacks?

It’s definitely been a really hard two and half years until now. I didn’t feel that I could bring to the team what I would usually be able to. For sure, it’s difficult. If it’s half a year, then it’s ok, but when it’s more than two years, it’s getting really hard. But like I said, being negative is not going to make it any better. So, I worked really hard, also with the team’s mental coach, which is helping a lot. I did some good training on the bike in order to be able to bring something special now.

Did you feel you were kind of “cursed” at some points?

I did have this feeling, and the fun is also a little bit out of the picture when you fight to come back, you reach a decent level, and you crash again… I had some races where I was doing well, but I could never continue the momentum because of a crash or something. In 2021, I crashed in Bessèges and then had some back problems. I came back, did the Giro, did an altitude camp, started the Tour du Limousin where I dislocated my collarbone. Last year, I crashed in Algarve and suffered a concussion. It took a really really long time before I was fully recovered. From February to June, I was really not well. Then the rest of the season was ok, but I still felt all the time that I wasn’t riding as normally, feeling as normally. The concussion basically messed up the season completely. After the off-season, I finally felt better with the slow build-up, but then I got a fracture in Bessèges. These four events sort of ruined my first two years with Groupama-FDJ. It was really a fight. Now, I’m talking about being positive, but for sure I really had some difficult moments. That being said, the love for the bike is too strong, and that makes you want to continue. I also try to leave it behind as much as possible, and I’m really feeling good about the future and what is coming for me now. The team also supported me the whole time, and I think that’s why I still have a contract. They believe that I can do better and in my potential.

“It’s really important that I keep the momentum”

Do you feel on the right way now?

Yes, I think I’m back now. The level I reached in the Ardennes Classics is good and now I need to keep going on the Giro. It will be very important for the rest of the season, and maybe for the rest of my career, to have a good Grand Tour in the legs, which will make me much stronger. It’s really important that I keep the momentum now.

What will be the next steps of your progression?

After the Giro, I’ll probably do some smaller races, and for me it will be important to perform also personally there. In the bigger races, I want to be able to support David, Thibaut, and the big leaders of the team. I know my part and I have no problem with being a domestique for guys that I know can ride for the win. In the end, I’m a sportsman and I want to take the start to win. And if I know I can’t win, I want to help the guy who I know can take the victory. Luckily, we have a few guys in the team who are super strong and can ride for victory at a WorldTour level. The big goal is to reach the best level I can and hopefully also get a few results personally. I first want to focus on this season and see what I’m able to reach. I’m really at my place here at Groupama-FDJ, I feel very well, I know everybody in the team. It feels like a family. I also have the rest mentally to know I still have a contract for next year, so it’s really important now just to focus on this season.

“We can’t all be the new Pogacar”

What kind of rider would you like to become?

As a pro, I would mostly describe myself as an all-round rider. I can do a climb, and I can stay with the group for quite some time, but the level at the pros is so high that I wouldn’t say that I’m a pure climber. However, races like Liège or hilly stages in a Grand Tour could be my type of racing. I’m also able to position well, just because I grew up here in the Netherlands. I was a tiny climber, but I still had to race in the wind, with echelons. I don’t know better than staying in the front. After all these years, I think it’s just a natural skill of mine. I try to use it to my advantage as much as possible. For the future, I would like to focus a little bit more on the hilly races, and to be able to do even better in the Classics like the Ardennes. However, it will also be very important to stay all-round because I know my role. In the bigger races, it is to help the leaders. We can’t all be the new Pogacar, and sometimes you have to be the guy that supports the leaders. It is very important to be versatile for the job that I have to do.

You’ve been one of the first to jump from the Conti to the WorldTeam. How does it feel to be surrounded by younger guys now?

I feel a little bit older now (smiles), also because I didn’t ride in the Conti with most of the guys that came to the team last winter. I’m almost getting 25, it’s my last year in the best young rider classification, so I slowly start to feel a little bit old, but it’s super nice being with the young kids. They all have a lot of talent, they’re all motivated and I think it motivates the whole team. I think that’s also why the team reached such a high level.

“In our podcast, we talk about things that aren’t spoken about in cycling”

You also launched a podcast a few months ago. For what purpose?

It happened also because the past two and a half years, despite the fact I was training a lot to come back at a good level, life was sometimes a bit boring. I really enjoyed having something on the side to take my mind off cycling, be a little busy and not come back from a ride and just watch Netflix the whole day. I wasn’t really aiming to do a podcast, but the guy I work with came up with this idea. At first, I wasn’t really convinced, because everybody nowadays starts a podcast, and I don’t know what else we would bring. In the end, he convinced me, and now I’m really happy to do it. We speak about things that aren’t spoken about in cycling. We spoke with the organizer of the Amstel Gold Race to know what it takes to organize it. We spoke with someone who started his own team and everything that comes with it. We spoke with Bram about being under pressure as a sportsman. All the subjects we are talking about are related to cycling, but they’re not spoken about a lot. We try to entertain the people with this. It’s more about stories and insights than results and performances.

Will you have time to do a podcast during the Giro?

No. We already registered four episodes ten days ago, and they will be released during the Giro. In the meantime, when I’ll be laying in my bed in the evening, I’ll prepare the next episodes, but I take it really easy. I can spend an hour at best a day, and it isn’t an issue either if I don’t do anything. It’s mostly trying to enjoy it, to have it on the side and to bring something new that people haven’t heard already.

Will we get episodes in French?

I don’t think so (laughs). Maybe in English one day, but it would be too difficult in French. I speak good French now, I could have replied very well to this interview if it was in French, but to tell stories, that’s still something quite different.

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