The second most successful rider for the Groupama-FDJ cycling team in 2021, Stefan Küng has once again fully taken his responsibility as a leader. If it was not for some details, his “very good” season could even have been exceptional. In this review interview, he discusses both his satisfactions and his frustrations in length, and surely sets course for his future goals.
Stefan, you recently came back from the team training camp in Calpe. How did it go?
First of all, I raced until quite late this year with the Chrono des Nations. I then took a break for about a month, so I only returned to training 2-3 weeks before the training camp. When I got there, I was not in the best level, but I came out of it in much better condition. I wasn’t particularly late compared to others, but you pretty much know your baseline level and have a memory of your “normal” feelings. After a break, you restart from way lower, but it comes back very quickly with quality work. We were able to set up the first specific work sessions, with strength, sprints exercises… At this period, we always have a muscular freshness that is interesting to use, so we take advantage of it. We also had a lot of things to do besides training, with meetings, photo-shoots, presentations from our sponsors. Above all, it had been two years since we last really got reunited, all together. It was about time to do it again. For us, it was also an opportunity to welcome the new ones. It is important to meet all the team members, riders and staff. They presented us with a flowchart to explain this all. It’s amazing how many people are involved to build a competitive WorldTour organization. Overall, it was a very intense but also a very effective camp.
“I remember my consistency at a very high level throughout the year”
What did you make of the general state of mind?
I can only speak for myself. If there is revenge to be taken, it is up to everyone, individually, to question themselves and make the necessary decisions. This applies to the riders as well as to the staff. We are certainly members of the same team, but our direct influence on others still is limited. On the other hand, I can always lead by example, and that’s also why it’s useful to be together. When you see what others are doing, it motivates you even more. That being said, the watchword was obviously “bouncing back”. As I say, everyone must question themselves. Personally, I might not have much to blame myself for, but that won’t stop me from looking for the smallest details to turn things in my favour in the most important races. We worked a lot on this perspective throughout the winter with the team.
Did you still take the time to recover properly?
Before going on holiday, we set up a session at the velodrome to work on my new position. Back from holidays, we went to the wind tunnel to confirm all that. In the meantime, I went to Mexico with my girlfriend. I still felt my break was quite short this year because it was pretty intense. With a few partners, we opened a bicycle café in Zurich, and we wanted it to start off on the right foot. I was very involved in this project, and I didn’t have time to get bored. I prefer when there is some action.
Did you also take the opportunity to look back at the 2021 season, its ups and downs?
Actually, we already think about it as the season progresses. I am someone who analyses immediately in order to take the necessary decisions straight away. During my break, I try to stop thinking about cycling at all, I put my bike in the garage, and talk about other things with my friends and family. Now, if I have to take stock of my 2021 season, I would say it was still really, really good. I won six races, I kept my European champion title, I won the opening time trial of the Tour de Suisse, where I also wore the leader’s jersey for several days. I also wore the leader’s jersey in the Benelux Tour, I won the Tour of Valencia. There is a lot to be satisfied about. The other positive thing that I remember from this season is my consistency at a very high level throughout the year. Every time I lined up for a race, I was at a good level. Certainly, stronger riders beat me a few times. And sometimes, for almost nothing. Let’s take the example of the first time trial of the Tour, in Laval, where I finished second behind Pogacar. That day I achieved a great performance. He was just stronger. At the Olympics, I missed a medal for less than half a second. It was even more frustrating as I also did an amazing performance that day. I was ready for the event, I had nothing to blame myself for. The others were just a little bit stronger. In these cases, you just have to accept it, move forward, and set yourself new goals.
Do you manage to move forward quickly after such disappointments?
Yes, it’s also how I am. I am quite a pragmatic person to be honest. I always say that when you find yourself in a situation, you must accept the verdict if you want to move forward. If you feel sorry for yourself, you are no longer moving forward. If you put the blame on others, that is not the right way to go either. In any case, I don’t proceed like that. I always set myself high goals, but I wonder what more I can do and what I can improve to achieve them. This is my state of mind.
“It took me a little longer to be able to swallow it”
Yet, was there a moment that proved to be tougher than the others in the past season?
The Olympic Games, surely. Cycling does not only live through the Olympic Games, but this event only takes place every four years. In this case, it was even five. When you miss out for so little, the first thought that comes to your mind is “will I get another chance?” Probably, since I’m not very old, but for example I missed the Rio Olympics due to an injury. I also know this possibility exists. The world championship is completely different from this point of view. It takes place every year, so you can try your luck every year. The Olympics only happen a handful of times in a career. For me, it therefore remains the biggest frustration, especially given the final gap. In the Tour, I was beaten by nineteen seconds in Laval, at the Worlds by twenty seconds for a medal. The Olympic Games are huge, especially in Switzerland. When we saw the course for the first time, we even thought it would be almost impossible to get a medal, but I had an extraordinary performance that allowed me to beat several favourites… but also to be beaten by others. Like I said, I did my best and you must accept it when you are beaten by stronger riders, but for sure that it took me a little longer to be able to swallow it.
Were you aware of the gap in the last moments of your time trial?
Not to that extreme. I knew it was coming down to seconds, but I didn’t know exactly where I stood. Normally, there is always Julien Pinot in the car and on the radio when I am doing important time trials. At the Olympics, the staff was very reduced, and we couldn’t bring him in. I’m not blaming the national coach at all, but I obviously don’t have the same experience with him. With Julien, I know from the way he says things, the intensity of his voice, if things are tight or very, very tight. With the national coach it’s obviously a little different. It also shows how important the people behind me, in the car, are. This is also why there is always Julien at the big events, because I trust him 100%. When he says “do this or do that”, I fully understand the message he wants to give me. In extreme situations, this is very important.
Have you improved on the time trial as much as you wanted?
I am improving every year. This has been so once again this year, and I have no doubts that I will make further progress between 2021 and 2022. This is the result of all the specific work that we do with the team and my coach. Then, it’s also a question of goals. When I first saw the Olympics course two years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined being competitive there. The key moment was the time trial of the Tour de Suisse, where we went up and down a real climb, and where I finished tenth just a few seconds off the podium. I proved to myself that I could perform well on very difficult courses. Then you tell yourself that there aren’t any limits. If all goes well, if you’re at 100%, do your best, and have little luck on your side, you can beat everyone and win any race. That’s what I showed at the European Championship, where I beat all the favourites. This kind of performance gives confidence for future goals.
“Improve even further in the Classics”
Are you now reaching your full potential in your favourite discipline?
Considering where I am now, if I can improve my performance by one percent, that’s already huge! We are really optimizing all the details. The work is becoming more and more important to seek gains which are marginal. But I do it with great pleasure. What’s motivating me is to think that one day I will be able to make use of my maximum potential. It has always been my goal.
Regarding the Classics, on the other hand, the season surely was not what you hoped for…
For sure. I think these are the races where I have the widest room for improvement. I performed well on some, but on others it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. In particular on the biggest events like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Still, the first part of the season is very close to my heart, and I will try to progress and improve even further in the Classics. We certainly have a better team this year than in previous years. We have talented youngsters who improve quickly, and we have recruits who can have an impact on these races. With the experience I gained and a normal preparation, I hope things get better. Last year, the Tour of Algarve was cancelled, and it was my resuming race. I competed in my first Classics without having raced beforehand. Sometimes, the issue also was that I wanted to do too well in the winter, and I was already getting a little tired coming to the Classics. We’re going to maximise all of that, and I don’t see why it couldn’t pay off. When I took the right move in Roubaix, in the rain, with a weather that suited me super well, I started to wonder “how can I win today?”. I really saw myself in a position where I could make it. I didn’t, but with the right circumstances, I have no doubts that it is possible.
What do you need, basically, to climb this last step in the Classics?
In these races, you have to be very explosive and be able to produce these super violent and repeated efforts. You need good stamina, but also freshness. Instead of doing too much in training, you have to think about that as well. We have implemented things to improve from that point of view in training, and there is also the equipment side of things. We will be much better equipped this year with the new Lapierre Xelius SL 3. It is a versatile bike, which is not only light and efficient regarding acceleration, but also very aerodynamic. This is the perfect bike for the Classics. This kind of input motivates even more. We have taken another big step forward from a material point of view. Physically, I know what I need to work on, where I don’t need to work too much. Finally, the Classics are also a mental battle, and that’s why I’m preparing for it with a mental coach.
“It is almost mandatory to make the most of my potential”
What motivates you when you start your winter preparation?
Actually, the motivation is higher when I stop my season. When I resume, it is not necessarily the moment where the motivation is at its peak because we are still three months away from the first race, which is itself a preparation race. The Calpe training camp is always a real boost for motivation. When you see the whole team and all the people who work for you, when you start talking about your goals more concretely, then you think “ok, here we are”. The other time, I saw a tweet that said we were sixty-seven days away from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. That gives motivation! You can’t be 100% motivated all year round. Personally, it goes crescendo as soon as I get closer to my goals. Motivation is like shape. It goes up gradually, and it also took a boost during the team camp. Then, cycling in November is not as pleasant as doing it in May or June. During this period, cycling is more of a job, whereas in season, the job of a pro cyclist becomes a pleasure.
Have you already underlined some dates of the coming season?
A few days ago, I was just watching the route of the opening time trial of the Tour in Copenhagen (smiles). I didn’t do it in November, I didn’t do it before or during the camp, but it came to me the other day, I don’t know why. I wanted to learn more precisely about what was in store for us because it is obviously one of my main goals for 2022. Now my program is quite similar to that of previous years and my objectives remain the same year after year. There are still many races that I would like to win. If I had to name three: Paris-Roubaix, a stage on the Tour and the world time trial championship.
At 28, you are entering what is traditionally called “the best years”. Does this come with more ambition?
I see it more as an opportunity, as I tell myself that I am now at a level that allows me to pursue these big goals. That being said, five years ago, I finished second in the opening time of the Tour in Düsseldorf and that could have turned my way already back then. Conversely, when you see Mathew Hayman winning Paris-Roubaix at 37, you can think that being in his best years or not is ultimately negligible. To me, it doesn’t matter if I’m 23 or 28. It’s just a number. We are certainly talking about “the best years” in cycling, but we can also clearly see that that is changing. Today, with the training becoming more and more professional among youngsters, they get at a high level very early. Personally, I still feel there is room for improvement. And maybe I’ll feel it until I’m 35, who knows? I am a very rational person. I think it’s a privilege to be gifted at this sport, and given that privilege, it’s almost mandatory to make the most of my potential. This is what I want to do. I want to be able to say to myself, one day after my career, that I really did my best to get to the top level and that I have achieved everything that I could achieve.