On Easter Sunday, the Classics’ group completed its campaign on a high. On the “Hell of the North”, the team’s leader Stefan Küng also made a point to close his spring in style. Despite an unfavourable scenario at the beginning, the Swiss rider could rely on his teammates’ support before proving to be among the strongest riders in this “dry” edition of Paris-Roubaix. Eventually, only Dylan van Baarle was able to stay away, and Stefan Küng then secured a wonderful third place on the Roubaix velodrome, setting his best result on a Monument. It also is the Groupama-FDJ Cycling Team’s best result in the race since 1997, and it also makes it nineWorldTour Classics in a row completed in the top-10 this season.
“We made a big mistake, so we had to take our responsibilities”, Olivier Le Gac
The editions of Paris-Roubaix follow each other, but do not necessarily look alike one another. Last year’s heavy rain and mud were replaced by bright sunshine and an almost summery temperature on Sunday morning in Compiègne. With a rather back wind all day, the conditions were therefore met to expecta great show. However, the day got off to a rather bad start for the Groupama-FDJ Cycling Team. Clément Davy first heavily hit the asphalt after a few kilometres, and following a big battle for the breakaway, most of the team was caught behind in echelons after about fifty kilometres. Only Lewis Askey appeared in the first peloton, while Stefan Küng was behind. “Almost all the favourites were at the back at that time, and I was personally coming back from a small natural break”,explained the Swiss rider. “I wanted to move back up, but when I suddenly looked in front, I realized that about sixty guys were already gone. Then, everyone looked at each other to decide who was going to pull. When we finally managed to organize ourselves, there was already a minute gap. However, in a difficult and long race such as Paris-Roubaix, we know that it is always possible to turn things around”. Frédéric Guesdon’s men then took things in hand for their leader. “We made a big mistake, so we had to take our responsibilities”,said Olivier Le Gac. “We were there to get a result, so we had to pull behind. The goal was to maintain the gap, so it didn’t get too large, hoping that Stefan could jump across at some point. Everyone gave their all, like in the other Classics, and we can be happy with what we did”.
Following the first cobbled sections, tackled after a hundred kilometres or so, the gap gradually narrowed, but it still took another hour to bridge across to the first bunch. “We were a step behind for the whole first part of the race, and Lewis also lost his place at the front after a crash,” said Frédéric. “There was a slight moment of panic, but we also know that a lot can happen in Paris-Roubaix. Obviously, the situation was not ideal, but we did our best to reverse the situation. Obviously, we had to sacrifice our riders to make sure Stefan would stay in the mix. We didn’t necessarily have to come back as fast as possible, but at the best possible moment. The goal was to get Stefan and Valentin back in the game before the Trouée d’Arenberg. That’s what happened.” The two main pelotons eventually reunited exactly 103 kilometres from the finish, before sector 20 from Haveluy to Wallers. At that point, only five men were still in the lead, including the winner of Milan-Sanremo Matej Mohoric. A few minutes later, in the terrifying Trouée d’Arenberg, the peloton broke into pieces as expected, and Stefan Küng was actually the only one able to hold Filippo Ganna’s wheel. Right after, the pace slowed down a little, which allowed the bunch to partially get back together. With 85 kilometres to go, the Groupama-FDJ’s leader could still rely on Olivier Le Gac, Lewis Askey and Valentin Madouas. In the lead, the breakaway was reduced to Mohoric and Tom Devriendt only, as the peloton clearly increased its pace after having allowed more than two minutes to the fugitives. The real “cut” eventually took place on the Orchies section, about fifty kilometres from the line.
“I was finally able to show what I’m capable of”,Stefan Küng
A dozen men broke away, including Stefan Küng, who was subsequently the only one to follow the acceleration of Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel in Mons-en-Pévèle. The group of favourites got back together for a few minutes later, but the attacks restarted in a tarred part preceding sector n°7. “We tried to go away in Mons-en-Pévèle, but then it was a bit of a tactical game, and three guys made the most of it”, said Stefan. “Everyone was on the limit. There were a lot of attacks at that point, I also went several times, but it is impossible to cover every move”. Yves Lampaert, Matej Mohoric and Dylan van Baarle therefore managed to take a step ahead, joined Devriendt in the lead, and quickly took a thirty-second gapover their competitors. “I knew we had to move somewhere, and I saw that Wout was very strong,” continued Stefan. “We managed to go away together, and then I had to close a gap on him in the Carrefour de l’Arbre after my wheel slipped a bit. Physically I felt really good, and we were able to catch the guys located in-between to remain in contention for thepodium”. After breaking away from his rivals with twenty kilometres to go, Dylan van Baarle quickly appeared unreachable but Stefan Küng and Wout Van Aert brought Tom Devriendt and Matej Mohoric back before the last five kilometres. The Swiss rider tried to get rid of his competitors before the Roubaix velodrome, but the podium places eventually were to be played out in this iconic spot.
“We were all at the end of our rope”, said Stefan. “I looked at their faces and I could tell they were as tired as I was. I then said to myself that I had to try from far in the velodrome. I still did track quite a lot of track cycling during my first professional years and in my youth. So, I came from behind with momentum, and it was also a mental battle from then on. I didn’t manage to make Van Aert crack, but it was enough to finish on the podium”. After a long and final effort, Stefan Küng managed to secure a magnificent third place on the Queen of the Classics, which was more than enough for his happiness on Sunday. “It was the maximum I could do today,”he said. “Dylan deserves this victory; he did a great race. There was obviously not much to do against Wout in the sprint, so I’m happy to be on the podium. I’m proud of my race today, and I want to say a big thank you to my team who allowed me to turn things around. The guys did a great job, so a big shout-out to them and the whole team. Personally, I had a very good Classics campaign, but getting on the podium here in Paris-Roubaix is something really special. It is a great achievement. It is an iconic race and one of my favourites. I’ve also had my share of bad luck in the past, but I kept saying it was my favourite race, and I was finally able to showwhat I was capable of. I’m going to put this small cobblestone in my living room, and when I’ll have a look at it, I’ll remember that there’s still his big brother to go for.”
“We had revised our ambitions upwards”, Frédéric Guesdon
Thanks to the performance of the double European time trial champion, on the fastest edition in history, the Groupama-FDJ cycling team got its best result in the event since Frédéric Guesdon, winner in 1997. In addition, the team has now conquered at least one podium on each Monument since 2016. “We started this “Flemish” campaign saying that we wanted to score at least one podium, but considering the way we started it, we revised our ambitions upwards”, concluded the sports director. “Once we got one, we wanted a second one, and once we got two, we wanted a third one. We could rightfully hope for such a result because the group was going strong and the races suited our leaders, especially Stefan. In the end, it’s not a surprise to be on the podium today given what we have done over the past three weeks. Actually, we would have been disappointed not to get a result today. Completing our campaign with a podium in Roubaix is great! Hopefully, it will continue like this, and I am sure it will. We have an excellent leader, very good youngsters, so we are entitled to dream for the years to come”. “For sure, we don’t have a big win in our great campaign, but if we keep going like this, I’m sure we’ll get there soon,” said Stefan before heading to a much-deserved rest period.