“In Hungary I almost had no one to look up to”
By joining Groupama-FDJ over the winter, he became the first Hungarian to sign for the team since its creation twenty-four years ago. At the time, he was not even born. Whether people noticed him in the younger categories or through his top 10 at Sestriere on last year’s Giro, Attila Valter is considered one of the most promising riders of his generation. A few days after the UAE Tour, the 22-year-old shared an hour of his time to introduce himself more deeply, to tell his background, to explain his decision to join the team, and to present his nearest ambitions.
Attila, you recently came back from the UAE Tour, your first race with the team. How did it go?
It was a great experience. It also was a perfect way to start the season and to get to know a little more how my new team is working. To be honest, the race in itself was not the best for me as I was going for much more. I think I had a good preparation, even though it was not the best winter of my life. I had to stay home quite a lot because of the Covid-19 situation, and I had some really rough weeks of training here in Hungary with temperatures of -5/-10°C. Still, it did not matter how strong I was as the race was decided after one hour and half on day one.
“I still struggle with masculine and feminine”
You’re referring to the echelons on stage 1. How did you experience that?
I’m not worried about echelons but it is something I haven’t experienced that much. It does not happen often in the lower categories. I also usually like to be a little more “easy” in the second part of the group, which you can’t afford in the crosswinds. However, it was still a nice experience because it was not like the race was finished after five kilometers. There were constant splits and regroupings. I could learn a lot from this stage. The GC was gone for me, so I was not so happy about that, but it got better and better along the race.
You could test yourself on the second summit finish and in a breakaway especially.
I actually felt in a really good place. Even if I was not in my top shape and I needed a little more explosiveness, my basics are really nice. After these seven days of racing in the UAE, I still felt quite good. In the previous years, I would have felt really tired for sure. I was up there in the second summit finish but I just lost contact with the first group with 800 meters to go. If I could have survived a little more, I could have gone for a top 10 or even nicer result, as my sprint in an uphill finish is quite good. The feeling was not bad for a first test and I’m really looking forward to other summit finishes. When I went in the break the day after, I felt even stronger. We all knew we wouldn’t survive, but it was really nice for training and I can say it was my hardest day on the bike in this UAE Tour.
Was the UAE Tour also a good opportunity to practice your French?
Of course it helped being with some Frenchies. I could talk in English with riders like Alexys or Olivier, because they still know it better than I know French. On the other hand, riders like Ladagnous or Bonnet don’t speak English but they are such nice guys. I wanted to speak to them and I also saw they wanted to know me a little bit more, so it was also a way to see how far I could go with my French. I have to say I’m still far from speaking it fluently, but I do understand a lot of things. I just need to get used to the common phrases and to be sure of what I’m trying to say. I think they quite understood me, and it will be better and better weeks after weeks. I actually need it to be better, especially for the race as it was really hard for me to understand the tactics and everything, even more in the radio. That will come. I’m taking French lessons. I really did not know anything before joining the team. I started in late November/early December, not so long ago, but I can see myself improving. I still struggle with masculine and feminine because there are no differences in my language, but I just need to put in the work and I’ll get there for sure.
“I felt the team really wanted me”
Despite the language barrier, you decided to join the team for 2021. Can you talk us through that process?
Soon after the lockdown started, we had been informed that CCC would close the team for 2021. That was a little bit of a shock for everyone. It was not the best situation but I had a good season start in France. There were a few teams interested in me, but what pleased me with Groupama-FDJ is that they were really confident about me. They told me they would give me a contract even if the season would not resume. It is something I really appreciated. I felt they really wanted me. I talked with other teams but the best option definitely was Groupama-FDJ. I talked to many riders and people who know this team, from the outside or from the inside. Everyone told me it is a super stable team, which is very important especially in the Covid time. Everyone also told me that despite them being super professional, they don’t put bad pressure on the riders. It is more of a big family. They don’t stress you out; they don’t punish you. They want you to be a better person and to feel good in the team, which is really important for me. I don’t want to just win races, because what’s the point if you’re not happy? I feel that all the riders are happy here, and I think this is how you enjoy cycling and get successful. Overall, I just had a good feeling with them. It was a bit of gambling for me because it was a very different environment, but after just two months, it is even better than what I imagined. From the outside, some might think they are a bit old school, but they actually are really professional, with the time trial, coaches, dietetics etc.
How was adjusting to this new environment?
I’m normally quite an easy-going person. Also, learning French was not a problem for me. I actually think it’s a great opportunity. I just hoped they would accept me both as a rider and as a person, and I feel that they are indeed really open-minded. I don’t feel it makes any difference that I’m not French. I’m just here for two months, I barely speak French but I really feel they accepted me. Even those who don’t speak English try to reach out to me, to ask me: « How are you? How was the travel and everything? ». They are friendly and they are trying to help. It’s just a good bunch of people. They really took care of me, for me not to feel alone or lonely. I appreciate it. They could as well say: « it’s your workplace, you have to learn French and get along with it » but that’s not how it works. They want their riders to feel comfortable and that’s also why it’s a super good team.
“I wanted to do the Olympics in mountain biking”
You come from Hungary, which is not a country with a big cycling tradition. How did you get involved in it?
It was not really a hard call for me. My father was a cyclist, he is now a coach and still rides everyday. It was therefore super easy for me to fit in. When I was born, my dad was still racing, both on the road and on the track. He was living in Italy and made a good living out of it. He never reached the highest ranks but everything was different at the time. Anyway, I was just born to be a cyclist. I still tried many sports before and next to cycling, but cycling always was the priority and my father would take care of my training. I felt competitive quite early but it was only 2-3 years ago that I realized that it could really be my job, that I could do something in the sport. In Hungary, I almost had no one to look up to, except for my dad or Laszlo Bodrogi. It was not too easy to believe that I could be a pro rider because almost no one did it before, but it turned out well.
But you first focused on mountain biking, did not you?
At the beginning, I was just doing mountain biking indeed. My first road race was amongst the juniors. Before that, I had never tried it. I wanted to do the Olympics in mountain biking. However, I had to realize that it was not really an option for a Hungarian to be in a professional mountain bike team. There are not too many options and they would always sign some French, German or Swiss guys before signing me. Or I had to be a world champion… It is harder to be signed by a good team than it is on the road, so that’s why I was trying myself more and more on the road. It turned out to be a good decision and I realized I was even better on the road. I also was lucky that some new sponsors came into cycling and formed a continental team in 2018 in Hungary. We got to do pretty solid races on the road but I was still competing in mountain biking next to it. It was still 50-50. I had a good Tour of Hungary and a really good Tour of Slovakia, where I finished third in a stage behind Alaphilippe and Hermans. It was an uphill finish and I just had super good legs. I was still really young; I did not know what I was doing. The very next day, I had an offer from CCC to join their development team and it got way more professional from then on. They allowed me to continue mountain biking, but looking at the opportunities ahead, I went almost all-in for the road. This was a breaking point season for me. I was in super good shape and almost all the races went really well. I was the team’s leader in 90% of them and I think I did about 30 top-10 and five GC podiums. I could set a good result every week and I think it allowed me to step up in the WorldTour.
Would it have happened without your stage victory in the Tour de l’Avenir?
It certainly helped a lot. People might also have paid more attention to me, and noticed it was not my first result of the year. If you just race in Romania, Poland or Hungary, you have to win a lot to convince the teams. Even after the Tour de l’Avenir, CCC was still hesitating to get me to the WorldTour because coming from mountain biking, I was still inexperienced on the road. I had trouble moving in the peloton and I was lacking some skills. I just had a good engine, but they understood that they would take a risk not to sign me at this point, so they did.
“I always set the bar super high”
Are you happy with the start of your career?
I try not to stress myself too much about results, but for sure winning the Tour of Hungary, my national Tour, was a really big thing. We can say it was a turning point for me in my country. Before, I was a cyclist known by a few other cyclists. I now get noticed a lot more; I get the attention of the media, the fans. It’s quite strange for me to think that people know my name or recognize me on the road. It was a breakthrough for sure but I’m always aiming for more. Before the Giro, for instance, I was aiming for a stage podium or a stage win, even if I knew I needed super good legs and a bit of luck to achieve it. I try to be realistic but I always set the bar super high. I did not go to the Giro just to finish it. I went there to be competitive and that is how I always approach the races. Overall, I’m on the way I want to be and that’s most important. I feel I’ve improved in many areas. I ride and train much more than in previous years, and I’m glad to see that the engine is getting bigger.
How important is cycling in Hungary these days?
Of course, it is not like in France or in Italy. We’re more of a football country; despite that we almost have no footballer at the highest level. In recent years, I think the cycling community has been growing a lot. The Tour of Hungary is now a very well known race here. Most of the people at least heard about it because it was all over the news. Once, a policeman stopped me on the road and we started talking. He did not know who I was but he knew the race. Apart from that, the Tour de France is very famous, but a few people actually follow the results. I think most of them don’t know who is Alaphilippe or who is Thibaut Pinot. That being said, people start to follow me as well as my results. The base gets bigger. I also like to think that I help cycling grow. It’s important for me as, growing up, I always thought it did not get the attention it deserved. I even got a letter from the Prime Minister after my win in the Tour of Hungary and the federation now gets more and more money from the government.
Do you still live and train there?
I grew up in the suburbs of Budapest, and I now live in the city with my girlfriend. I’m not in the centre though so I don’t have to deal with the traffic. I’m really fast out of the city, it’s pretty easy to train here and I almost know all the roads. We also have the mountains next to Budapest, around forty minutes from my house. I sometimes go there by car. There are no real passes but more 20-minute climbs. Yesterday I did all the sides of one climb in a long six-hour training and I had more than 3000 meters of elevation. So you can climb! If I need to climb for more than twenty-five minutes, I have the training camps. I still think I have good terrain here, with various climbs, and I enjoy training here.
“If I could finish 30th instead of 60th, I would”
Have you always considered yourself a climber?
It came naturally. In mountain biking, you’re just a mountain biker, but I already felt better on the climbs. Then, when we would go for training, I also enjoyed climbing way more than the others. I also realized I could make a difference on that part. But it also comes with your body type. It is not something you just decide by yourself. Even if I wanted to, I could not be a sprinter or a Classic rider. I’m a climber and I’ve always aimed to be a GC rider as well, even at the beginning when I was making mistakes and losing time. I can do really good time trials, especially among the climbers, and I train a lot for it. Then, it’s just a matter of surviving and pushing everyday. If you are a good climber, you should always go for the GC.
Since April 2019, you’ve only completed only two race’s day outside the top-100. Is it a coincidence?
I really look up for riders like Valverde in that matter. For some time, he was always inside the top-50 in every race and stage. This is something impressive to me, also to have that mindset that eventually makes it normal. In the UAE Tour, even though I was out of the GC, I still tried to arrive everyday within the first group and not get time differences. Just to get used to it. I always try not to drop from the first group for no reason. I like to finish in the front. So no, it’s not a coincidence. Some ask me « why are you doing this? Why are you not dropping today? » It is just how I like to race. Last year on the Giro, even if I was not fighting for a win or a good place, if I could finish 30th instead of 60th, I would. I know that nobody cares about it, but I just want to be in the front and get decent results as often as possible. I just need to fight every day.
Looking at your results, one can also notice you’ve got a good sprint…
I want to be even faster, but my ability is to produce a good amount of power for five seconds at any point of the race, even after six hours. Some riders might be able to produce more watts than I do at the start or in the middle of the race, but I’m often faster than most of the riders at the top of a climb or in a small group after a hard day. I also put some attention to that because that last kick can allow me to fight for podiums or good results.
“I don’t want too much too fast”
What major goals have you set for yourself entering your first year with the team?
I think I can say I have two main goals. The first one is the Giro. Theoretically, it’s in my program. I really hope to be there and to perform well alongside Thibaut. I want to be a really useful helper and to show to the people that I can be a really good domestique. The other goal is the Olympic Games. We have one place for Hungary and it looks like I will go. I want to have a good race in Tokyo. I have realistic expectations but I always believe that some good things can happen. These are the two main goals but overall, I just want to improve in everything. I want to see that I move better in the peloton, that I can survive three weeks better, that I can absorb more training and that my data improves. I don’t want too much too fast. I just want to be a bit better than the previous season. If you get a bit better every year, you’ll get up there eventually.
How exciting is the possibility of helping Thibaut on the Giro?
It is really nice for a young rider like me to have this opportunity to prove himself to his new team, his followers, or even to Thibaut. It is also something really satisfying to me to help someone to achieve a big result. If Thibaut gets on the final podium, I would feel it’s my own. It’s just really nice to be involved in this mountain train for him. Of course it is a big responsibility, but I know I’m able to do that. I also have the experience of last year’s Giro. However, the main thing is that the team trusts me. They know my values and saw my results, so they are convinced I’m up to the task and that gives an extra confidence.
How much do you know about Thibaut?
I just met him in Besançon and we haven’t had the opportunity to talk much yet. From the outside, I always liked him; his aggressive racing, his style in the climbs. In Hungary, he actually has quite a fan base because of his personality, because of how honest he is. I heard only good things about him and reading some of his interviews, he really seems like a cool guy. I really like his mindset. We’ll have the opportunity to get to know each other more in the Tour of the Alps. It will be an exciting race and it will enable me to understand what he needs and how he needs it just prior to the Giro. I hope we will create a nice bond. Anyway, I want to show him that I’m here to work for him and that I’m ready to give my best for him.
What is next for you?
I just have the Volta a Cataluña before the Tour of the Alps. I don’t have too many races but I don’t mind, as I’m the kind of guy who likes to train a bit more than travelling and racing every week. As far as I know, I will have my own chances in Catalunya, but there will also be Matteo [Badilatti] who is also a super good climber. We’ll see how things pan out. Almost every stage will be a climbing stage, so every day will be another opportunity. I just hope to be in a bit better shape there, a bit more explosive. I will now have 3 weeks to put in really good work in better weather. After Cataluña, I will maybe do an altitude camp but we will see how the situation with the Covid is. Anyway, it is really nice to get such opportunities in my first year on the team.