“To be the world’s best Classics team in 2–3 years”
The story between Lewis Askey and the Groupama-FDJ cycling team is not about to end. After his first and successful season at the highest level, the young Briton indeed extended his contract, thus guaranteeing his presence for the next three years. In this interview, the former winner of Paris-Roubaix juniors explains how he came to this choice but also talks about his first months in the WorldTeam, while sharing his exciting vision of the future.
Lewis, you’ve entered the off-season with a wrist injury following a crash on Paris-Tours. How are you doing?
Good enough! I’ve always been a very active person, so to have a broken wrist means that I have no other choice than to rest. A lot of people would say it’s a good thing for me (smiles). Anyway, I’m fine. The wrist is a bit annoying, but I can enjoy myself, catch up with my friends, go out etc. It’s been nice to have a few weeks at home, in just one place, because the whole season has been really full-gas with traveling and racing.
“I really really wanted to stay”
You’ve also entered the off-season with some great news. Can you tell us about it?
Indeed. I recently signed a new contract with the team until 2025. I think they were really happy about how I had been riding and how I had been performing during the Classics’ season. I think I was performing a bit better than they were expecting for my first year in the WorldTeam. There is also one week where I nearly won two races in a row. That’s when we started speaking about renewing the contract and keeping me in the team for a bit longer. I think they saw the potential in me, and that’s actually why I have been with the team since the development program. They didn’t want me going off anywhere else. For me also, it’s really where I see myself taking a solid start to my career. A three-year contract brings security and means I can just concentrate on racing my bike. I can just focus on getting better and improving. That really was the right thing to do. It was fully signed at the end of the year, but the talks came already after the Classics.
How did you welcome the team’s offer?
It’s definitely a nice feeling to see their trust, but I’m confident in myself. I know what I’m capable of and what I believe I can do in the future, so it did not feel like a massive shock. I’m very happy that they wanted to contact me so early, but I also believe that it did not really change anything for me because I really really wanted to stay as I think it’s the best place for me to get better as a cyclist, especially with the vision and the new guys coming in. That’s a big point for me.
Seven riders from the Conti will indeed join the WorldTeam in 2023. Yet, it wasn’t done when you started the talks.
I kind of knew before. You could see how the Conti was performing, and I knew the guys there. Without knowing 100%, you could see the way they were trying to build the team for the future. We talked a lot about the vision of the team, and if they did not take a lot of people from the Conti, that would be going against that vision. So yes, it was definitely part of my decision. We said it from the start: of course, we want to perform next year, but again, it’s really about being the world’s best Classics team in 2-3 years down the line. We’ve shown already this year that we were right at the front of it.
“When it’s your mate, you just go that little bit further”
What did you think when you heard that seven riders from the Conti would come on board?
I did not imagine seven, to be honest. Obviously, being within the team, you start hearing rumors before, so I knew about it before, but was I surprised? With the timing of the UCI points system and the start of a 3-year period, I think it was the best time to do it. Yes, I was surprised, but I also understand the move. If you think about what the team has been saying about what they want to do, and how they want to build for the future, then it just makes sense.
Does reuniting with some of your friends make it even more exciting?
For sure. That is the big thing. It’s really, really, nice to know that, for the next couple of years at least, I’ll be going to the races with my mates, like when I was a junior. That’s an atmosphere I really thrive in personally, so I’m really excited for that. I knew these guys and lived with them for one or two years, so I’m obviously really close to them. I don’t know why, but with friends, I think you will do better, you want to do better. When it’s your mate, you just go that little bit further. Even if you think you can’t, you do. You push a little bit more or you work together a little bit better. Such small margins make you win bike races, so the slightest thing like that can really make a big difference.
Do you think having so many young riders can be risky?
I don’t think so. You’ve seen how good the young guys can be now, and you’ve also seen that all these guys that are coming up were the best U23 riders in the world, so there is no reason why they won’t be the best Elite riders in the world in two or three years. I don’t think it’s a massive risk. I’ve shown myself this year that I was performing in the French Cups for example, and we still have big leaders for the big races. I think this strategy will pay off for the team. They wanted to build a strong Classics group, and they stayed true to what they said, which is really nice. That’s of course a massive reason why I’m here and I’m looking forward to achieving that in the years to come.
“I was able to do a good job, but I want to do better than that”
Is the Classics group on the right track for becoming the best one in the world?
It’s a difficult one to say. The young guys need a couple of years to develop. That doesn’t mean we won’t be racing at the front next year, but there is a difference between racing at the front and being one of the guys that can win the race every time. Luckily, the important thing is that we still do have riders like Valentin, Stefan and Kevin. It’s now more about building up the support around them, and for sure, in a two-year time, guys like Sam and me will be there in that front group into the last kilometres. In the future, it will be a strength we can use. In the Classics, a group of 10-15 often arrives at the finish. This way, we would have 3, 4 or 5 guys and I think that’s when it will really play into our advantage.
Coming back on the 2022 Classics’ campaign. What do you make of it?
For us as Groupama-FDJ, considering what we were aiming for, I think it’s an excellent season. For sure, you can say that we miss one big win, but I really think that it couldn’t have gone so much better. We really did all the right things. Sometimes, it’s just down to the day. If you play the same race over, maybe the top-3, top-5 can be different. Personally, I would rate it as excellent, and I think a lot of teams share the same opinion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to improve in the future.
What about you? How did you feel in your first year racing these Classics?
It’s difficult to say, because sometimes, I really felt like I belonged and I felt part of the bike race, but sometimes, I felt like I was rubbish. I mostly realized that there is always someone on a good day, the level is so high. There is also a difference between the level of the races. As for positioning, tactics, and that sort of thing, I really felt comfortable. I know I can do that. I just missed that depth a little bit. The team was super happy with how I performed, but at the same time, it’s annoying when you’re not there at the end of the race. I want to be there with Stefan, Valentin, coming into the last kilometres. It was sometimes frustrating. I was able to do a good job, but I want to do better than that. Overall, I was happy. I nearly won two races, I did a couple of good lead-outs, including for Arnaud at the end of the season. He was really impressed with how I fit in the train, and I was happy with how I performed for him in the last couple of races. I was also super nervous because I did not want to mess that up, but I couldn’t really have done anything better. So, there were some points in the year where I really felt comfortable, but there were also a few points where I felt out of depth a little.
“I know I can perform with the best”
After experiencing it all, would you say that top level is reachable?
The thing is that if you are 1% worse than somebody else, that one percent means you make or miss the winning break. It means you’re three seconds off at the top of a climb, and it means you don’t get into the wheels, and that you’re not in the race anymore. It’s such a small difference that makes you be there or not. Sometimes, it felt like it was far away, but I have full confidence because I’ve been one of the best in the world in all age categories, so there is no reason why I shouldn’t also be in the Elite.
How did it feel to take part in two Monuments like Paris-Roubaix and Flanders?
That was super important. That was the big reason why the team wanted me to come in last year when I kind of wanted to stay another year in the Conti. Now, I’m glad they pushed for it, because I think I know what to expect for next year. There is no surprise, there is nothing that will make me do anything stupid. It’s nice for the nerves as well. They put me against the best in the world, and it can’t get bigger than that. That means I know how the level is, as I already said. I know what to expect and how the races are ridden. It was super cool to be able to do that.
You also finished 42nd in Paris-Roubaix despite a knee injury.
I’m quite good at performing well on specific days, especially ones that really mean a lot to me. On Paris-Roubaix, I was really on one of these days, so it was really frustrating to be caught in a crash and have my knee cut. I spoke with Stefan afterwards, and like me, he was convinced that I would have really gone far in the race. Very far. It was frustrating but I did take confidence from it, and I know that I can definitely perform with the best in such a race.
What have you learned, eventually, from your neo-pro season?
It’s difficult to say one specific thing. I think that the whole interview pretty much sums up what I’ve learned this year, whether that be working in the train with Arnaud, whether that be positioning Stefan in the Classics, whether that be even the politics of the peloton: to know when to do what, when is the right time to get a little bit naughty, when is the time to give in a little bit. That’s a big thing actually. You wouldn’t think from the outside, but there is a lot of politics going inside the peloton. This year was a big jump for sure, and I was expecting a big jump. However, I know that I’m young and I’ve also seen how I performed in the races throughout the year. I think there are a lot of guys who would be happy with how I performed in my first season. I can only take confidence from that.
“I would love to get a win next year”
Is there something missing from your 2022 season for it to be fully successful?
A win. I have plenty of nightmares about missing these two opportunities (in March, editor’s note). It is what it is. I’m sure it won’t be too long until I get my first victory, but that would have really been nice, because they were really possible. It wasn’t because of the legs but because of mistakes that I made that I did not end up winning. That hurts, but apart from that, it’s been a nice season.
In a recent post, you talked about ups and downs. What’s your best up and your worst down?
Best up would probably be Flanders because I really performed well there. We obviously got a podium, and just the vibe in the team… It was a super cool day, I remember that. It was special. As for downs, maybe crashes, as I normally don’t crash a lot. Honestly, I know I shouldn’t really be sad about it, but it could also be when I got second in Classic Loire Atlantique, because I messed up myself that weekend. It’s not massive down, but that’s one of the things that hurt this season.
Starting the season, you said you were not in a rush. Are you more in a rush now?
Maybe a little bit, but not really. I think the people around me are more in a rush than I am (smiles). They’ve seen the potential and they’re more like: « come on, we can do it ». Personally, I’m not any more in a rush. At the end of the day, I can only do what I can do: my best. What will be will be.
What is the step you’d like to make next season?
I would love to get a win next year, and I think it’s doable. This year, I did not make it to the front split in the Classics, I would always be with the peloton. On a few occasions, I nearly made it to the small group that fights out for the win. Next year I’d like to make that group in the Classics. That’s kind of my goal. I want to be there much longer in the races before I get dropped, or not.