“The 2020 season was a great story”

A keystone of the Arnaud Démare’s successful 2020 lead-out train, Ignatas Konovalovas will still be alongside the French champion in 2021, after he extended his contract for one year with the Groupama-FDJ cycling team. This renewal comes after a brilliant season for the Lithuanian rider, despite him entering it with some doubts. In this interview, he talks about it in detail and obviously comes back to the great season both the “Démare group” and himself had.

Ignatas, the Giro ended almost a month ago. How’s your off-season going since then?

So far, everything is going very well. I am in Lithuania with my family and I’m making the most of it, because during the season I divide my time between the races, Spain and Lithuania. I don’t often have the opportunity to be here, so it’s nice to be able to sit down and see my parents, my loved ones. For sure, the off-season is different from usual. We love traveling with my wife and my son, and that’s what we usually do at this time of year, but that’s impossible now. Therefore, we’re staying in Lithuania, where there is a lockdown and everything is closed. My parents own a house on the town’s outskirts and we moved there. This allows us to enjoy nature, and when the weather is good enough, we like going to the river or observing the fauna. As for the bike, I haven’t used it since the end of the Giro. I plan to resume training next week. I still do small core exercises, 2-3 thirty-minute sessions per week, in order to strengthen my back, where I had certain issues in recent years.

“I always wanted to stay with the pros”

Precisely, your contract extension that was announced on Wednesday did not seem so obvious starting the 2020 season.

The big question mark, both for me and for the team, was related to my back. Last year, I left the Giro with a lumbar hernia. It bothered me all last season, and I did not race for 3-4 months after the Giro. This year, it was planned that I would extend only if everything were going well. However, given the Covid-19 situation and that the season would not resume until August, we agreed with the team to wait. Above all else, the team wanted to extend a healthy rider, who was ready to start again for another season. Their first interest was the rider’s health. Mine, in that case. However, we didn’t race for a long time, we couldn’t foresee the situation. In the end, the best test I could go through was to pass the three weeks of a Grand Tour. As it turned out, the one I raced took place in October this year. So we waited to see how things were going on the Giro, even though we had an encouraging discussion upstream.

Have you always been confident you had the aptitude to pursue your pro career?

From the end of the first lockdown, I was quite confident about my state of health. I only had a little doubt about the return to racing. I did not know how my back would react, but I was reassured quite early. In my head, I always wanted to stay with the pros. You can never know what can happen to you, but I was quite calm throughout the season, from July/August until I left for the Giro. We had always been talking with the team and the sports directors. They were quite confident as well. They just told me, “We want to make sure you don’t have a physical problem anymore, but don’t worry. If you feel good at the end of the Giro, your contract is ready”. Of course, that relieved me. For an athlete who is supposed to leave home in order to do his job properly for three weeks, it is important not to think too much about the future. These words and this confidence from the team helped me a lot.

Are you now completely free from your back problems?

On the bike, I don’t have any problem. It doesn’t bother me. It might bother me once in a while if I don’t sleep well, if the mattress is not great. In these cases, I might wake up in the morning and feel a bit stiff in my back. In the worst case, it might bother me for the first five minutes on the bike, but once I’m warmed up, that’s okay. From the Vuelta a Burgos, which was our first race back, I felt things were going better, but Milan-San Remo was the race that really gave me peace of mind. Even though I didn’t appear in the results sheet, I did do 300 kilometers and seven hours on the bike. And I felt ok afterwards. That’s probably what gave me more confidence and motivated me for the rest of the season.

“That was the year I felt the strongest”

During this slightly doubtful period, how important was Arnaud’s group for you?

They probably were the ones who supported me the most. The whole group was really helpful morally speaking. We are really close to each other, and they reassured me over and over again, saying: “Don’t worry Kono, given how you’re performing, there is no way you won’t re-sign.” It helped me a lot and it motivated me even more to do my job properly. Yet, at such times, when your future depends on your health, some may think the opposite: doing less to spare yourself, pushing less hard to prevent the pain. Basically, that’s kind of “cheating”. I really wanted to continue, I love my job and what we do with Arnaud, but there was no way I would “cheat” with this group and with these guys. That’s why in each race, like each of us, I gave everything until I had nothing left in my legs. I think that’s also what made our group so successful this year. Everyone would empty himself and would not think about saving some energy.

Apart from the lead-out train as a whole, some individual performances stood out during the season. Did you personally have the feeling of taking it to the next level?

Due to Covid-19, it has been a very special season and everything was reset in August. It was a different approach for all the riders, and we didn’t know what to expect from our level of performance or our physical condition. As far as I’m concerned, I was of course very happy with the way things turned out. I also owe it to those who helped me in my preparation, especially my coach, but also my wife who supported me a lot. Even though I didn’t win a race, I think that was the year I felt the strongest. If we talk about the Giro in particular, I even think it was the “easiest” Grand Tour of my life in a way, because I just had amazing feelings. I felt very strong, I felt that I was bringing real added value to the train. Day after day, it gave me more and more confidence and I felt stronger and stronger.

How would you explain it?

As I said, the season has been quite special, with different preparations from usual. Perhaps the overall level of the bunch was slightly lower than usual, but at the same time, I beat the power records I set since I joined the team five years ago… For example, I broke my five-minute watts record in the Giro. I don’t have a specific explanation. I’m also a “diesel” kind-of rider, and like to prepare the old fashioned way. Due to the sanitary situation, we had a lot of time this year and therefore the preparation was not “forced”. We didn’t need to build up the intensities quickly due to the races to come. Maybe that also played a role. Finally, there is definitely a mental factor. As Arnaud came back very strong after the first lockdown, it led all of us to take it to the next level as well. When we noticed that our leader was going so great, we wanted to give even more, because we were sure he would go for victory in almost every race. When you’re at home and train for the next event, you think: “given how strong he was in that race, I have to do even better in the next one, I have to be better to help him, because the level will be higher, because the Giro will be harder”. I think it also played a big role in our respective level of performance.

“When Arnaud wins, I feel like I win myself”

Are there precisely two or three personal performances that you were especially satisfied with?

It’s quite special this year because I had that feeling in a lot of races. If we proceed chronologically, I could name the last stage of the Tour de Wallonie, where Arnaud took the win and the overall as well. The route was quite difficult but that’s typically what suits me when I’m in good shape. There were 30-40 riders left in the peloton, and we had to chase and catch the last breakaway rider. When I hit the front and took my turn, I felt really strong, I felt I was doing the job that was expected of me. I felt that I had played an important role in Arnaud’s victory. On the Giro, I felt that same satisfaction. Sometimes I rode until the flamme rouge, which never happens to me usually. I don’t really have the qualities or the speed for it. I rather work up to the last ten, five or even three kilometers at best. I launch the train, put it on the right track, and my job is done. This year, I felt I could ride up to the flamme rouge, even up to the last 800 meters. It was a real change. In the last stage we won, we came from 30th position to the head of the peloton with two kilometers to go. I was at the head of the train, and it looked like the peloton was stopped. We were going 5km/h faster than the rest.

It is a thrilling kind-of performance?

Above all, it is really important for me particularly, but for each rider who aims to do his job properly to help the other win. That’s a mentality in its own, which you have or which you can work on. When Arnaud wins, I feel like I win myself. When you overtake the whole peloton as you approach the flamme rouge with the train behind you, you get goose bumps on your whole body. You feel like you are doing some really important work and you know you are doing it well. That’s really exciting.

Did Arnaud and his train’s success this season reaffirm your decision to continue?

If we had only won three or four races, that wouldn’t have changed a thing. I would still have had the desire to continue. I’ll be 35, but at the end of the day, it’s just a number. As long as you are ready to train, to leave home, to be in the races, to suffer while still being able to do your job properly and bring something to the team, that is most important. That being said, when you enjoy this kind of season, it gives even more motivation for the future that’s for sure.

Despite the season being very brief, do you consider it the richest of your career?

That goes without saying. Rich is the right word. It was so because of the feelings I had, the victories we experienced together, and even the races where we tried and where it didn’t work. It was crazy this year. If we start next season with the same spirit and the same physical condition, I think it is possible to do as well as this year, if not better in terms of victories. If this is a normal season, we will have more opportunities, but we need to be very careful and not think that next year will look like this year just because we have done well in the last few months. This 2020 season was a great story, but a new one will begin in 2021. We will have to stay motivated and not think that the work is already done. We’ll start back from scratch and it will be necessary to work in the same direction to do the best possible.