“We are much better off than last year”
For a fortnight, the Conti’s riders have returned to racing and already had the chance to show themselves, whether on Belgian or French soils. While they now have a small gap in their calendar, team’s manager Jens Blatter talks about this start of the season but especially tells us more about what lies ahead for his young men, in the short, medium and long term.
Jens, the season is now really on for the Conti isn’t it?
Absolutely! We did a very good preparation in the winter, even if we did not know exactly when we could resume, given that the “Class 2” calendar has been quite modified. Eventually, we were lucky that things went well in Belgium with Le Samyn and the Grand Prix Monseré, and we were also able to ride Paris-Troyes without any issue. We did well in these first three races. We need to remember that we have a very young team this year. Many of our riders are just making the transition from the juniors to the U23 ranks, so they obviously need to get used to that. This being said, we were very active and aggressive in these three races. After 200 kilometers, it is sometimes a bit difficult for the youngsters, but we still did some great things and it’s pretty good in terms of results. Antoine Raugel, in particular, could prove his potential. We had already noticed during our training camp in Italy that the overall level of the team was even higher than in previous years. Since when we started from scratch in 2019, we’ve always said it would take us three years to reach the level we wanted to reach. We took advantage of the past year to improve again, I think we have a very good team and I am sure that we will still have some really good results in the coming races.
“We take full advantage of the riders being in Besançon”
The whole team has also been reunited in Besançon for over a month.
With the lockdown last year, it really was not easy. The guys were home, and although it is now easy to communicate with the Internet, it is not the same. Today, we take full advantage of the riders being here. The good thing this year is also that they are all staying at the Performance Center in Besançon. Therefore, we are all together and it will make for a nice atmosphere. For example, the riders had a “crêpes” night this week. It’s great for the team spirit. We decided to make them stay at the same place because it is sometimes difficult to find an apartment in Besançon, especially for a foreigner, but also to simplify the rider and the team’s organization. Last year, we had to pick up the riders early in the morning, within a 10-15-kilometre perimeter, to leave for the races. Now, we have an appointment in front of the Center and we all leave together. It’s much more convenient. On Mondays, we also have a race debriefing with all the riders, including those who did not ride. We can talk about things we did well and what we can improve. Anyone can make mistakes, especially at this age. The most important is not to do them again. We want everyone to be able to benefit from these debriefings. That’s a big advantage, as is the medical follow-up. For example, we unfortunately sustained a few crashes in Belgium in our first races, and the fact that they are all here really helped us to monitor them.
What are the main outlines of the calendar for the rest of the season?
We were originally supposed to race in the Netherlands this weekend, but all non-professional races are cancelled there. Next week we will go to Slovenia to compete in the GP Adria Mobil. We will then stay there for almost a week, between Slovenia and Italy, with most of the team. We will do a small training camp and we will continue with races in Italy. We initially had three of them: Trofeo Piva, Giro del Belvedere and Gran Premio Palio del Recioto. Unfortunately, we learned that the last of them had been postponed. We will then come back to Besançon and will take part in the two races in the region (Classic Grand Besançon Doubs and Tour du Jura), which are Class 1 races and real goals for the team. We will then race Paris-Mantes but most of the team will take a small break before we calmly resume in May. The big events will then follow one after the other from the Baby Giro. We have two or three gaps in the calendar, which is a shame, but overall we are much better off compared to last year so far. We are very optimistic and confident that the situation will improve by May.
There are not too many doubts regarding your current program?
Of course it’s difficult to say because no one knows what will happen in two weeks or a month. The numbers continue to rise in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and even in France. If we look ahead, we are mostly worried about the races in Italy. Now, we have also learned that Paris-Roubaix U23 was cancelled. Fortunately, things are going pretty well for the Class 1 races. Regarding the “Class 2”, things are more unsettled and that’s why we have to make adjustments every 2-3 days. At the moment, that’s not really an issue because we manage to find races in other countries, where the health situation is better.
“The Baby Giro is THE big goal of the year”
Overall, has building the calendar been easier than last year?
Absolutely. We have returned to a more usual framework, targeting in particular U23 races and stage races. The real difference this year is that we have added several Class 1 races to our program. It’s a bit of a bridge between the U23 and the WorldTour races. We also noticed that we were up to the task, that we were able to have a role. This is also a good thing as the Class 1 races have been pretty spared so far. We made a good decision. Finally, as I often say, we are also lucky to have the WorldTeam in the background. We can do riders’ exchanges on a regular basis, and that really helps us out. In this race-free weekend, for example, we were able to send two riders to the WorldTeam for the Bredene Koksijde Classic. This is a very positive thing, especially for our youngsters.
What races do you particularly target in this program?
Our big goals will be more the second half of the season, especially with the Baby Giro, which is THE big goal of the year. With the Tour de l’Avenir – where only national teams compete -, the Baby Giro is where we find the strongest competition and the best teams of our category. It is also the only race on the calendar that lasts ten days. Then other goals will follow one after the other, such as the Giro della Valle d’Aosta, the Tour Alsace or the Ronde de l’Isard. Our focus rather is on stage races this season, as some Classics have been postponed or cancelled.
Not taking part in the Baby Giro would have been a real blow?
Although we are a “reserve” team, wild cards don’t come easily. We must always apply to participate in the races. For the Baby Giro, for example, 90 teams applied but only 32 were selected. We only had a 30% chance of being there. Fortunately, we had a great Giro last year with several top-5s and that definitely helped us. Not being there would have been a true disappointment, not only because it was our biggest goal of the year but also because there are almost no races at this time of the year. So we’re really happy and relieved to join the event.
“It’s not only the results that matter”
Do you feel the wild cards competition is stiffer this year?
It gets indeed more and more difficult. Each year, new development teams are born and try to make their way through. Coming back to the Baby Giro example, they select first of all the best Italian teams, which is normal. The remaining places for foreign teams are therefore very hotly contested. We’re not the only development team, everyone wants to be there and it gets a lot harder. I keep my fingers crossed, but so far we have been lucky enough to be taken in all the races we have applied for, except one. This wild cards competition is also due to the context, as teams want to race as much as possible. I think some even send 2-3 applications for the same weekend in order to be sure to race at least one of them, fearing cancellations and postponements.
Despite the competition, the organizers do trust you overall. As the team manager, are you proud of it?
I’m super happy and proud that we have the opportunity to be invited to most races. My job as a manager actually is to enable the youngsters to ride as much as possible, and in the most important races. I’m very happy that we were able to find the best solutions for the team. In my opinion, there are two main reasons for this. There is for sure the fact that we are a WorldTeam’s development team, which is always great for an organizer, but there is also the relational side of things. Personally, I’ve been in touch for ten years with 90% of the organizers. Our relations do not start on D-Day, or when the wild cards race begins. We talk throughout the year. Still, we are obviously grateful for their confidence. I also often say that it’s not only the results that matter. Behaviour is also super important to us. I want the organizers and the hotels to be happy from this point of view. If you do well sporting-wise and that your behaviour before, during and after the race is good, there is no reason you won’t be invited again.