With the Tour of Algarve on Wednesday, Stefan Küng is launching his 2023 season, his fifth one with the Groupama-FDJ cycling team. Having become an essential member of the organization, and an extremely reliable leader, the Swiss man intends to keep on maintaining the momentum he showed last year, regardless of the terrain. The World Championship Time Trial’s runner-up sat down for a long chat before returning to competition.
How was your off-season, Stefan?
There were several periods. We became parents in June, so we took advantage of the holidays to spend time together, as a family, and it also allowed me to resume training with enthusiasm. Then, given that I had finished my season quite late on the Chrono des Nations, I only resumed in mid-November. After a few weeks of training, I already found myself in the training camp in Calpe, where I was able to meet some newcomers from the Conti for the first time. It was cool, there was a really good atmosphere. I then spent a part of the winter on the Canary Islands. First, I spent two weeks in Gran Canaria with my family for a small personal training camp, then I did a team training camp, first in Tenerife on the Teide, then in Pedreguer. Everything went perfectly, I was never ill. Everything is in place for a good season.
“2022 was an extraordinary season for me”
Do you feel you’re in the right timing?
It’s hard to say. Even if we have power-meters that allow us to know more or less where we are, it remains a little vague at first. I trained well, but at the same time, the Tour of Algarve is just my first race. The main goals are a few weeks or even months later: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix as far as I am concerned. If you are already 100% in Algarve, then it’s still a very long way to Roubaix. The point is always to find the right balance between preparing properly, working well, building good foundations, while leaving yourself a margin. Most importantly, you need to keep a lot of freshness. I think I’ve found the right way of doing things over the past few years. I am quite confident. I also really like the Tour of Algarve. There is a time trial, two hilltop-finishes, one very steep, the other more rolling, then two stages for sprinters which are not totally flat. It’s really the perfect race to come back, and if we see that something is missing, we can adjust that by the time we get to the Tour of Flanders. I’m pretty confident that it’s going to be fine.
Let’s talk a bit about the 2022 season. Do you think it was the best one of your career?
From a global point of view, it was an extraordinary season. I don’t know why, but I found myself on my ProCyclingStats profile a few days ago, and I really realized that I was up there in all the races, from the start of the season. This is the first thing: I was very, very consistent at high level, I was there all the time. That being said, it’s very good to be there all the time, but in my view a very big victory is missing. I had great results, in particular with medals at the Worlds and at the European championships, with a third place in Roubaix, but what people remember from a season is a very, very big victory. The fact that people ask me if I judge this season successful kind of proves it. That’s actually a goal for this year. I think it might be better to take more risks in terms of race tactics in order to get a win than to finish in the top-10 all the time. I know it’s very hard, we always try to do the best, but I tell myself that it will pay off one day. In general, it was in any case an extraordinary season for me. It gave me a lot of confidence, especially in a race like the Tour de Suisse where I was able to fight for the overall (5th). It’s motivating for the future, because it makes you think that you can have ambitions all the time.
What were you the most satisfied about?
Above all, I think it was my good Classics campaign, with the podium in Roubaix as the highlight. Admittedly, I was already up there in the Classics in previous years, but it was by far my best season in terms of results. Then there is the general classification on the Tour de Suisse. I pushed my limits. I never imagined myself being able to achieve such a result in a week-long WorldTour stage race, at the highest level, with two very hard summit finishes. I surprised myself. Those are the two things that stood out the most to me. There are obviously the silver medals at the European championship and the world championship, but I already knew that I had this level on the time trial. In the other two areas, I have really made a step forward, and I have entered the very high level.
“We tell ourselves that it is possible, that it comes down to details, and that motivates everyone”
What were you the most disappointed about?
The most frustrating is obviously the world championship. It was really a very big goal for me, so to come so close to a victory and be beaten by an “unexpected man” was very hard to swallow, especially since I was in the lead at the last intermediate check. The Tour de France was also very difficult for me. I got the Covid a week before, I was negative just in time to take the start but I was not at my level. I struggled for almost two months to find my level back. It was very difficult to experience it, because I was not at the level I was at for the whole rest of the season. It’s hard to accept when you’re at the start but you know you’re already beaten.
Was it easy to move on after the World Championships?
Yes and no. It took me a few days, it also came back a few times, and even now when people tell me “I suffered with you”, it brings back bad memories. This said, I remain very pragmatic because I really gave my best that day, I beat all the guys I wanted to beat, and I hadn’t necessarily taken into account the guy who beat me. It remains my best result at the World Championships so far. I wanted the rainbow jersey, of course, and it’s super frustrating when you’re beaten by such a little margin, but when you know you’re so close to getting there, it’s also motivating because you want to work even harder to gain those last few seconds. I also feel that within the team’s performance department, when we do trials in the wind tunnel, when I see that the sponsors are ready to do everything they can, make every effort… I didn’t finish two minutes behind the winner, I finished two and a half seconds behind. We tell ourselves that it is possible, that it comes down to details, and that motivates everyone. The UCI changed some rules this winter, which might be to my advantage. Until now, all riders had the same regulations regarding the height of the extensions, regardless of their size. They adjusted that, and we had to change the position. We also have a new partnership for helmets. We had to work a lot to find the best possible set-up. We had to start from scratch for a few things, but we really wanted to check the steps one by one to be sure that it works.
Regarding the Classics, what changed in 2022?
It’s hard to say, because I was also up there in the Classics in previous years, with top-10s here and there. I just made another step forward. In my preparation, we really established that we were focusing on the Classics in the first part of the season, then working more on the time trial in the second. It is important to separate these two blocks, especially for me who has an important role in all the races I take part in. We have to find a good balance between these objectives, because the Classics require very different specificities compared to the stage races. Preparation has a big part, then there are many other things. Our Classics group is getting stronger and stronger, has more experience, and trusts me even more. There is also nutrition, equipment… If we manage to gain half a percent on each facet, that enables us to reach another level.
“Take more risks”
What do you need to take this very last step in the Classics?
I just have to keep working seriously, and as I said earlier, maybe take more risks, even if it means going “all or nothing”. The level is very high, there are phenomenons who are the big favorites for these races, and I should perhaps try to take advantage of their rivalry to achieve this great success. I felt close to doing it last year. If you finish fifth in the Tour of Flanders and third in Paris-Roubaix, it means that you’re fighting with the best. If the race goes a little differently, anything is possible. Anyway, I believe in it.
Are you proud to see the Classics group performing so well?
For me, it’s first of all very nice to see that we have a young and motivated team. These are very hard races, with difficult weather conditions, where you need to be strong mentally and never give up. So having enthusiasm and motivation helps a lot. We also spend a lot of time together, and it’s always more pleasant when you get along well. I think that will be the case again this year. And then, when you have several cards to play in a race, this is when it can turn to your advantage. We rely a lot on our young riders coming from the Conti, and if everyone manages to take a small step forward, it can only go in the right direction.
Speaking of youngsters, what do you make of the eight Conti riders joining the team?
It’s always a good thing to have new faces in the team. It’s also good to have a continental team, but it’s even better to manage to take them in the WorldTour afterwards. We can see that the youth strategy is working. As I say, it’s all the more motivating when you have a motivated group, and the young guys are certainly very motivated. Some of them are so for the Classics, which is a good sign. I am not a rider who will tell himself “Young guys are coming, I will need to move myself”, as I always try to give the maximum regardless. I don’t see my teammates as competitors but as colleagues. For me, it’s a new wave coming. It still brings a change to the team, it rejuvenates it, and we also look to the future. It shows that we want to bet on the youngsters. I think it’s a good thing when a team is balanced, because it’s good to have experience, but it’s also good to have that breath of fresh air. It enables the team to remain dynamic.
“I prefer to race less but perform well every time”
We mentioned overall rankings earlier. Is that something you want to explore this season?
We will see race after race, also because it will be very special this year given that the world championships will be just after the Tour de France. So if I do the Tour de Suisse before the Tour, it would be a very long block. It may sometimes be better not to go for the overall but to go for stages while maintaining long-term goals. We’ll see as the season goes on, but I’m certainly not going to forbid myself anything. In a race like the Tour of Algarve, I will see how I feel day by day, and if I feel good, why not try to hang on to get a good result overall.
Isn’t it too difficult to have goals that often?
That’s how I am. I prefer to race less but perform well every time. Anyway, training races no longer exist in modern cycling. In each race I start, I give the maximum. I approach all the races with this state of mind, and it does not cost me more. When I line up for a race, I like to perform well. I prefer to do a little less quantity but be there all the time. That being said, we certainly set goals prior, and I already know those for the coming season. But if things don’t go well on the Tour of Algarve or during the opening weekend, there will be no reason to panic because you have to see the long-term objectives.
What do you hope for regarding the coming season?
If I just manage to be one place higher in each race, that would already be quite good (smiles). The objective remains the same: to win a major one-day race and the world time trial championship. It may seem dull to say again the same goals every year, but since I’ve been so close, it would be silly to change goals now.
“I identify a lot with this team”
You are also entering your fifth season with the team. Do you already feel “being part of the furniture”?
I haven’t thought about it this way. I did not come into the team thinking that I was going to impose myself. That just comes through the performances, charisma, and character of a person. I also feel the confidence of the team, the teammates, the staff. I’m starting my fifth year with the team, and I think we’ve improved a lot together in the first four. It’s a very good sign and it’s nice when we can move forward and work on great projects together. This was also one of the central points of our discussions for my renewal. I said to the team: “we’ve been improving up until now, and I want us to continue to do so”. We were on the same page. I also feel that the team’s fans like me, and it is obviously very pleasant. I identify a lot with this team. For me, the team is a daily thing. We wear the jersey every day, we have to feel good to be able to perform. I have very good relations with the staff and the other riders. Basically, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Swiss or French team as long as I feel good and I’m always proud to put on the jersey. I feel like I’m part of this team. We’re all part of the same team, we’re all trying to move forward together, and that’s what’s exciting.
Finally, you share your last races with Thibaut in 2023. How did you welcome the news?
Us riders talk to each other a lot, and I have always had a very, very good relationship with Thibaut. He obviously announced it to us earlier than he did to the general public. I was not surprised, because although he still loves the sport, we must not forget that this is his fourteenth season in the pro peloton. When you are, like him, the French leader in a French team, there are surely a lot of expectations. I have experienced it several times with him. Some say he’s only 33, that he could still do a few more years, but the great thing about it is that I’ve hardly ever seen him so motivated heading into a season. Even though he knows it’s the last, he really wants to show the best Thibaut to end on a high note. I think it’s beautiful: to be able to say “I’ve had enough” but to finish in style, and not when you no longer have the desire and perhaps no longer have the level to fight with the best. I have a lot of respect for his decision, and also for the way he is approaching this last season. He announced it to everyone so that things are clear, and he can enjoy this last season because he has no more pressure. He has won so much; he has nothing more to prove. We know what rider he is, all he has to do is enjoy, and for him enjoying means being at the front of the race.