Starting off with an unavoidable question: how did it go for you in those two months?
- We went to my parents-in-law who live in Luxemburg, just a day or two before the lockdown was introduced. There had been rumors circulating for a couple of days around Monaco, and we, being parents of a not-yet three-year-old girl, saw a nightmare or being isolated in an apartment coming, and made the only reasonable decision. A country house with a garden was already a blessing, then it turned out that I was officially allowed to ride on the road as long as I did it alone! I also did some indoor training with the Tacx app and took part in the victorious virtual Giro, but apart from that it was all about staying outdoors. I must admit that my family found itself in a privileged situation, given the seriousness of the restrictions imposed in most of other parts of Europe.
What did your training day look like?
- It came natural that I dialed down the intensity quite a bit, there’s no use training like a maniac when you don’t know when your next race is. I was focused mostly on staying in shape and not being thrown back to zero, it looked very much like what I do in winter, with some gym work in the garage etc. I put in some intervals, of course, but they were of much lower intensity than normal, just to keep the system from going into a sleep mode.
How would you assess your todays’ conditions on the scale of one to ten?
- It depends on what side of conditions we are talking about; everything combined I think it’s between 6 and 7, and it’s not bad at all given the time we still have before the first race. I started training harder when I came back to Monaco, and I am reasonably happy with my feelings, they are definitely better than after an off-season period.
What about your overall impression of virtual racing? You have achieved some good results as part of Astana’s line-up, after all.
- It was a fun experience for me, it gave me a lot of good, and I’m likely to look closer at what more I can get out of it in the future. At the same time, I’m not that kind of a person who lives in a virtual world; riding on the rollers for hours on end is not my cup of tea. Who knows, if I found myself in a real lockdown, I would change my mind, but I’m more than happy with the way what the actual situation for me turned out to be.
From a psychological point of view, how did you deal with this period, when the pandemic crisis in Europe was at its highest?
- There is no denying that initially it felt like a heavy blow. The period of uncertainty that followed was not much easier, it’s not normal for a pro athlete to see only vague prospects instead of clear-cut goals and definite dates. The other challenging aspect was, as I said, the fact that my daughter who normally goes to kindergarten, couldn’t play with other kids for two months. You have to think again though and see lots of other people faring so much worse, so you mustn’t complain. This thought was of much help.
On the other hand, life has never been 120 per cent about cycling for me, and if you are aware of life outside cycling, and after cycling for that matter, it gives you a chance of getting over hard times much easier. I appreciate this opportunity to stay more with my family, even odd-jobbing at home like fitting a hook for my wife’s bike feels like fun. Last year with my friends we launched a new brand of cycling clothing, and I gave it some thought during this period too.
Fortunately, today you have more reasons to look forward instead of looking back. What is the future going to bring in terms of training camps and most important races?
- We are leaving for an altitude training camps in mid-July; the team will be broken in two parts to make it easier from a logistical point of view, those guys who are based in Spain will go to Sierra Nevada, we who live in Italy or nearby will train in Livigno. It’s a sensible and cautious approach, we reduce the number of people in the same place on one hand, on the other hand, it’s not the best solution to jump on a plane yet.
I’m happy with the fact that the evolution of the team never stops over the years; when I joined it in 2013 it was almost 100 per cent Grand tour-focused project, it’s much more versatile now, in classics we have become a force to reckon with. If the calendar holds good, my peak form period should spread between the World’s and the Giro.
Narrowly missing out on an Olympic gold in 2016 – have you come to terms with it?
- I’m quite OK with it, believe me. Greg van Avermaet was in form of his life on that day, and at the end of a long race he can beat the likes of Peter Sagan in a sprint. I won silver, it was one of the highest points of my career. I can even call it a turning point, that was the race when I started to believe that, with a full support of a strong team I can achieve something serious, and it continued this way with Astana. Now I’d rather look ahead, at the next Games, and I’m determined to give it at least a good try. In October last year I rode Saitama criterium, mainly to see the Olympic course. We weren’t lucky with the weather, it was raining cats and dogs, and the reconnaissance was all but completely done by car, but I saw enough to make sure that the route is cut out for me as a specialist of hilly one-day races. I started this season with a lot of motivation and in very good form, I took a couple of wins in Spain. Then everything was cut short and the Olympics were postponed; it could be logical to assume that it would have a devastating effect on me; instead I’m feeling even more motivated now. I can’t deny that three first weeks of the lockdown were a crisis period to overcome, but I managed to find the reset button and push it.
It’s a shame you’ll have to give up the defense of Liège-Bastogne-Liège title because of the overlap with the Giro.
- Indeed, the worst thing about this congested calendar for me is that most of the classics are moved to October. I was looking forward to riding LBL with number 1 on my back, but it can’t be helped. Yeah, it was definitely one of the greatest wins in my career. People often ask me to choose between LBL and the Dauphiné as the most important ones; I’d put them on an equal level, you know, a monument and a prestigious stage race belong to different genres. After all what we’ve been through in these months, the main thing for me to look forward to is racing, in any shape or form.
What about that now-famous save on the descent, when all of us TV commentators made so much noise like: “Look, here they are, his MTB skills!”? Were we right putting it down to your off-road background?
- Sure enough, that episode is still more than alive in my memory. It was a matter of a split second actually, there was no time for dramatic thoughts like “Oh, I can lose everything here!” to cross my mind. Luckily, my instincts and skills worked well, I let the bike go and put it straight, but who knows if it could be directly attributed to that MTB past of mine. I mean, good bike handling is always a great asset, and I owe much to my professional mountain biking career, but it’s a distant past now. My off-road career helped me a lot in further development, and it’s not bike handling that I talk about, it’s an ability to push yourself to the brink of the limit for hours, to race hard in front without thinking which wheel to follow. There is not so much of a mountain biker is still left in me. I do an occasional ride on an MTB now and then, but I’m a fair-weather rider, hating a thought of cleaning a mud-caked bike back home. Who knows, maybe I’ll grow on it again when my professional career on the road is over. One thing is for sure, I’d recommend this activity to anyone, you ride in a very healthy natural environment with no traffic around you.
Even your photos posted on Instagram show how happy you are with the technical package Astana gave you this year. As an ex-mountain biker, you’ve found yourself in your element using disc brakes, right?
- Absolutely! I was waiting for this solution from the very first day that the disc brakes appeared in the pro peloton. I don’t have any issues with them people talked about some years ago, if there were any, they are gone in the process of development. You have a better feeling with the bike in all weather conditions, the pressure you have to apply is much less, the breaking feels far more accurate and smoother. The only thing is the initial setup, entrust it to a good mechanic, after which they will work perfectly for months. As to Wilier Triestina in general, they are the best bikes of my career on the road, that’s for sure. I used a Prologo Dimension saddle last year and I was quite comfortable with it, but this year they gave me a model that suits me even better, it’s not only about greater comfort, the dynamic tests show that my position is more stable now. New Wolfpack tires on good old reliable Corima wheels, which never stop improving… Well, I mean, everything equipment-wise is in its right place now. When you train with it, it gives you so much extra motivation to use it all in racing environment!
As a versatile rider, especially in your younger days, could you imagine yourself setting the goals Mathieu van der Poel is running after?
- If I were as young as him now – well, perhaps I would be motivated by such a challenge, to combine these very different disciplines in an attempt to get to the top in all of them and go for the titles. Perhaps the fact that he is more of a classics rider type makes it a little bit easier, I don’t think it would be realistic to aim at GC in a Grand tour and an off-road title in the same season.
He is a very interesting rider to follow, I had much fun watching him in the cyclocross Worlds in February, a pure show of power and skills, he was head and shoulders above the others in this race; the aspect of riding technique plays an extremely important role in what he does. I also imagine what it’s like to race all year round, almost non-stop. It can’t go on like that for many more years, both your body and your mind need periods to recover. I believe one day he’ll have to choose one over the other.
The final one, back to your family life. You mentioned fitting a hook for your wife’s bike one of these days. Does it mean her bike hangs there all the time, or you go out for a family ride now and then?
- Yes, we do. She rode my old bike and was quite happy with that, but when she tried the new one of mine, she lost her sleep, she wanted this feeling and these disc brakes. So, we ordered another Wilier, she has to be patient though, as production and delivery this spring takes more time. Frankly speaking, it’s not as if she liked riding with me that much, as I ride too fast for her even on a rest day. She prefers going out in a company of girls, with Hugo Houle’s girlfriend, for example. Don’t think of a coffee ride, though, two days ago they rode for four hours, earlier today they added half an hour more.
One day your daughter will join your family squad, sure enough?
- She is too small now to think about it. But first thing I’d send her in the forest, I can’t imagine a small kid riding on the road. Out there on forest trails with a bunch of friends I think it’s much safer.
Text by Sergey Kurdyukov
Photo credit: © Getty Images