A few weeks after celebrating his 21st birthday, Paul Penhoët is ready to launch the 2023 season. On the Tour Down Under, the young sprinter is already hoping to make a statement, and why not, put his arms in the air. He joined the Groupama-FDJ WorldTour team last summer and has made “winning” his watchword for the year to come.
Paul, how are you doing ahead of your return to racing?
I’m doing great! I started my break a little earlier than in previous years last autumn, so I resumed cycling earlier as well. This enabled me to work well before the first training camp in Calpe. We worked hard there too, and the shape started to build up. Then I went to the south of France, so as not to have a gap between Calpe and Australia. I think I handled it well and hopefully the form will be good for the race.
“I was motivated to do everything right”
Was the Tour Down Under planned for a long time?
It was proposed to me during the interviews in Besançon, and I was immediately up for it. It was perfect for me, as I prefer racing to training. It allowed me to have a goal early in the season and to be very concentrated on the whole winter preparation. It’s something that appealed to me. I was thinking about this race even before it was suggested to me, but I’m in my first year, and I’m not yet at the stage of demanding my schedule.
Has the preparation been very different from previous years?
Definitely. I resumed training earlier, and everything was more important. There were more hours on the saddle, and during the training camp in Calpe, I did more specific work than those who started later. We planned things well for this Tour Down Under. I don’t take the race as preparation. I did everything I could to come here with a decent form in order to perform and to take confidence. It’s the first time I’ve had to prepare myself to be in shape so early. With the Conti team, we usually resumed around March. Last year, I did Oman, but it was decided at the last moment, and I wasn’t that ready. I think starting early suits me well. I feel that with a bit of training, if I am meticulous and serious, I can be in good shape quite quickly. I now have two months of training in my legs, and I think that’s enough to have good fundamentals. I was feeling good already in Calpe. When we started to do specific training, I noticed that it was going well. I did some more intensities during my personal training in the south, and I even broke a record on a four-minute test. I think the form is really good.
What about adjusting to the Australian summer?
I didn’t want to be caught off guard, because I had heard stories of guys who came without doing anything beforehand and really suffered from the heat. We did things right with Anthony [Bouillod]. I had normally planned to do a bit of a hot bath every day, but that wasn’t possible because the flat I rented in the south didn’t have a bath. However, we really wanted to work on it, so I was doing home-training sessions in my clothes after training, without bringing the temperature down. It was a bit more annoying than the bath, but I was motivated to do everything right. I think it worked pretty well.
“You have to prove everything again, especially to yourself”
This will not be your debut with the team. Did moving to the WorldTeam last August after many experiences with them give you the feeling that the step was not so high?
Surely. In terms of races, I pretty much remained on the same calendar. I continued to race at the “French Cup” level. It was a bit hard at the very beginning, when I came in 2020, 2021, but I have now got used to it. As far as the team environment is concerned, I already knew all the staff and all the riders thanks to the different training camps and races. It almost felt normal, and there were hardly any changes. The transition was very smooth. In the end, I think the only change came from myself. I feel like I’ve grown even more mentally since August. I have an even greater will to do things right. I told myself: “now you are in the WorldTour, and you have to do everything to perform”.
What did you learn from the end of the 2022 season?
The end of the season did not give me much satisfaction. I had set myself the goal of winning a race in the pros before the end of the season. I didn’t succeed, and for this season I was disappointed. I said it to the staff during the interviews and they told me that they were quite happy with me and that the end-of-season goal was met. It was more of a personal disappointment, but the end of the season still consolidated the idea that I could win races and that I just needed to make a few changes with myself to gain confidence. The satisfaction was to be able to say to myself “ok, I am up here”, but now I don’t want to limit myself to podiums or top-5 finishes. That’s not what I’m interested in, nor what the team expects from me, I think. I have the level to come fresh for the sprint, and it is now up to me to make the small adjustments to be able to finish it off.
You mentioned a lack of confidence…
I think that’s what I missed most. I didn’t have much confidence, strangely enough. I don’t really know why. In the race finals, I felt a psychological difference. Maybe I had complexes, though I shouldn’t have. With the big boys, it’s sometimes a bit strange to think that you’re up against the guys that you usually see on TV, that you’ve been watching since you were little. But you also need to process that the Conti is over, that the class-2 races are over, and that you need to perform in the big races. I understood that during the winter, I thought about it, and I am mentally ready to do well in the big races. Confidence is also very much connected to the competition. At U23 level, we often meet the same teams. So, when you win once or twice, you know that you will meet the same guys in the next races and that it is possible to win again. When you come on the big races, there are more opponents, and everything has to be redone. You have to prove everything again, especially to yourself.
“I especially want to win when there are big names at the start”
What is your state of mind on the eve of your first WorldTour race?
I don’t think too much about the race’s category. Looking at the startlist, there are quite a few guys I have already raced with and battled with. For me, that’s the most important. I know that it is possible to fight with them. I’m in good shape. I’m just excited to get a bib back on, I want to do well and start the season in a good way. I just want to perform well and make sure everything goes well with the team.
Nonetheless, are you expecting a big challenge?
Obviously, especially because everyone says that when you get to the WorldTour level, there is more at stake, and each team is more committed. You can be sure that all the teams that have a sprinter will be very well organised. But that’s also what makes me go. It’s always nice to win a race, but I especially want to win when there are big names at the start. That’s what I’m training for. I’m happy that there are good sprinters here, it will allow me to see where we are in terms of preparation. It is also an opportunity to see what I still miss, what we can improve and what is different from the French calendar. I’ve already spoken to Arnaud, but I want to see for myself how things are going and then adjust everything.
What is your goal here?
I’m definitely coming here to win. It’s ambitious, but on the other hand, it’s also the reason I’m training every day. I’ve come here to win a stage and I think it’s not impossible. Of course, I want to measure myself to the competition, but the primary goal is to win. I’ve been thinking about this race since I resumed training.
And you will be reunited with three former Conti’s teammates!
It feels strange. It almost feels like the four of us are still in the Conti team and that we are racing with the WorldTeam (smiles). We left each other not so long ago, and it’s nice to think that we are all in the WorldTour today, without it changing our habits. I will also be back with Laurence for the sprints, we already know each other, and everyone gets along very well.
“It’s great to have pure speed, but you need to have it at the end of the race”
Speaking of sprints, what do you think of the Tour Down Under’s stages?
There is only one stage that has a 99% chance of finishing with a sprint. The others will be hard! We saw during the Australian championships that Caleb Ewan and Michael Matthews were in good shape in the hills. There are also some big teams that have brought good riders but no sprinters. That can change things if some riders want to make the race hard for the overall. Personally, with my current form, I think I can get over the hills. I think that if Caleb Ewan can do it, I should be there too.
When we interviewed you two years ago, you actually said that you wanted to become a sprinter who could get over the climbs. How do you assess your evolution regarding this point?
Since then, I have changed quite a bit physically, and we worked on that with Joseph [Berlin-Semon] at the Conti. It has paid off. In the French Cup’s rounds, despite difficult circuits, I saw that it was going well. I was really happy with that. This year, I hope to move up another notch that will allow me to be even fresher at the end of the race, and especially to be there on a WorldTour race. Everyone says that the pace in the climbs is not the same, so we will see. Miles also told me that all the New Zealanders and Australians were already in great shape, that this is kind of their “Tour”. I think that when the race starts, it will really hurt. We’ll have to see where I am and if I’m capable of getting over the climbs at this level. I worked on these efforts over 5-10 minutes. It’s a bit like a flat finish in terms of intensity. It was really important to work on it, because it’s great to have pure speed, but you need to have it at the end of the race. Now that we have worked on that, I think we will be able to concentrate more on the sprint, especially with the physical preparation that I have put in place, through work out. It’s an additional investment to the training sessions and I think it’s something that will help me.
You will also face Caleb Ewan. You previously said he has a profile close to yours.
I was mostly making a comparison with him in terms of position and weight. He can also get over the climbs, as we have already seen in Sanremo. He is still someone I look at. He is an opponent like any other, but I want to do well against him even more.
“I really want to win this year”
All-in-all, what do you expect from this 2023 season?
In my mind, the “discovery” part is over. I’ve done two and a half years with the Conti team, I’ve done quite a few races with the WorldTeam, and that’s not bad. For me, all the races in which I was promoted were learning experiences. The result was just a bonus. Now that I’m in the WorldTour, I’m certainly a neo-pro, but I don’t make any difference with the older riders. The team expects results from me, even if they still think about my development and the experience I can gain. Personally, I am really thinking about results, and I really want to win this year.
What was the team speech?
Expectations are still moderate. I have been told a lot about the French Cup, because I will participate in almost all the races that suit my profile and that can finish in a sprint. The team also wants to boost this front a bit. They didn’t give me any specific goals for victories, nor did they put any pressure on me. That comes from me. I’m practically the second sprinter in the team, and if it ends in the sprint on the French Cup, it will be for me. I will have a role to play in these races and I am happy about that. It’s great to think that you can have a chance of victory quite regularly over the year, to go to training and tell yourself “next week I have another opportunity”. It gives a good thread through the whole season.
What would be a successful season for you?
If I could get three wins at the end of the season, I think I would be happy with it. I also think it’s possible. I have a calendar that can allow me to achieve that, if I do things right. A goal should always be achievable, but to think that it is possible enables you to keep the motivation all year round.