He has enjoyed stints in both the yellow and green jerseys at the Tour de France, clocked up two top ten overall finishes in the race and notched two stage victories, although neither saw him enjoy any podium time. The Columbia-HTC rider spoke to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes about last year's achievements and this year's goals.
Before the start of each season the big guns of cycling sit down with their respective directeurs and plot the ideal path to their main objectives. Training camps, early season events, one or two Spring classics and shorter stage races are often the path chosen for those targeting the Tour de France. Each has their own preferences in regards to specific events, with past experiences and present intuition being used to fine-tune their programmes. The idea is to gradually gain form in order to reach the perfect level of fitness, and at precisely the right moment.
However, sometimes even the best laid plans go astray. Like Christian Vande Velde in the Giro d'Italia, Kim Kirchen crashed hard and was forced to take time off the bike; like Vande Velde he also suffered a fracture, although his broken collarbone was little compared to the tally of injuries the American suffered. He was also “fortunate” in the timing of his crash, at the Tour of California, as its position much earlier in the season gave Kirchen more time to recover prior to the Tour de France.
"We had gone down a descent, we reached the bottom and I went to take off my rainjacket," recalled Kirchen when speaking to Cyclingnews in recent days. "I had my hands off the handlebars, then a rider in front of me passed; I had to get back on my brakes again, but I had my jacket in my hand. When I braked, the jacket swung into the front wheel and that was it. My wheel jammed and I went down."
Unlike others riders who have amassed a collection of scars and screws, Kirchen has got off relatively lightly in his career. "That was the worst crash I have had," he said. "I was in Italy for five years with Fassa Bortolo and I had two or three crashes in that time, easy crashes; normally I am not used to crashing. This year it has been three times already, it is a bit different. But I can't complain - I've had plenty of good luck in the past."
"I think I can be really close to the podium."
-Kim Kirchen on this year's Tour de France
The Luxembourg rider said that while he got back on his bike in less than a month, the disruption to his schedule was severe. He had planned to hit his first peak of the season for the Spring Classics, aiming to take one of the big Ardennes events after his triumph in last year's Fleche Wallone. That aspiration had to be abandoned, and he went to those races below his top level and with the revised goal of helping his team-mates.
Kirchen continued working hard and showed he was back on track when he took a stage victory and finished ninth overall in the recent Tour de Suisse. This was only a little way off last year's performance in the ProTour event, when he netted a stage win and ended up seventh in the general classification.
"The crash was at a really bad time so I lost the chance to get a good result in the Spring," he said, "but now I am back in good shape again and I will try to do the rest of the season until the end. The season is long and there are still a lot of races to do."
In theory, missing some events and being a little below form in the spring could - potentially – be of benefit to a Tour rider. The route at this year's Tour is a difficult one and it could be argued that having more in reserves could lead to some notable performances later in the race. However, Kirchen himself indicated that it will be crucial this year to be in top condition from the word go.
"The prologue is pretty hard, you have to keep that in mind. You have to be in really good shape already at the start, you can't lose much time. Also, when you are not in top shape early on, you also spend more energy than you otherwise would. We will have to see how it goes - we [the team] can't say, 'Okay, he hasn't been riding so much since the start of the season and now he has more reserves.' We will see [what happens] in the third week."
Building on 2008
Although eighth overall last year was one step below his 2007 placing, in many ways Kirchen had a better Tour. He led the overall and points GC for several days, finished as runner-up to Thor Hushovd in Saint-Brieuc, and was - at the time - second and third in the two time trials. His improvement in the race against the clock is something he has worked hard at and takes satisfaction from.
"Three things pleased me a lot about last year," he said. "I always had it in my head to win a Classic, so this came true. Also I was better in the time trials, so I achieved that goal as well. Then I reached a third target when I took the yellow jersey. The only thing I didn't achieve is the win, a [stage] victory in the Tour is still in my head: to cross the line first. For sure, that will be an objective for this year."
Kirchen has had pretty poor luck when it comes to chasing stages in the race. In 2007 he finished second to Alexandre Vinokourov on the race to Le Louron. The Kazakh was later banned for blood-doping, making Kirchen the official stage winner, even if he never got to opportunity to throw his victory salute. The same situation occurred in last year’s Tour when he finished second to Stefan Schumacher in the first time trial in Cholet. The subsequent disqualification of the German also meant that Kirchen was promoted to third in the final time trial of the Tour.
Fortunately, Kirchen did find an alternative route to achieve some podium time. In 2008, he took the maillot jaune in two different races. Earning himself plenty of bouquets, champagne and much deserved applause.
"At times in the past I was close [to the leader's jersey]," he said. "Last season, taking yellow in the Tour de Suisse and then yellow in the Tour was special. Normally as a young rider you are always looking at how you can achieve that. It seems impossible at the time, but when you are older you are more confident and relaxed. For sure you have bigger physical possibilities, too.
"Now it is time to focus on the big races, time to win stage races."
-Kim Kirchen on maturing as a rider.
"Now I am 30 [he will be 31 on July 3rd - ed.]. When I was 22, I didn't have the condition or the experience to be in a leader's jersey or be the leader of the team. This comes as the years pass. Now it is time to focus on the big races, time to win stage races."
Kirchen never previously stood out as one of the very best time trialists in the sport, but his performances in the chronos of last year's Tour showed that he had stepped up a notch. Carrying on that improvement will be important if he is to challenge for stage race victories in the years to come.
"These are the first two years that I have trained at home on my time trial bike," he said, explaining one reason for his improvement. "I never did that before, and it's helped."
Another factor in the development of Grand Tour aspirations has been a gradual growth in his self-belief. He was a nervous leader of the 2008 Tour de Suisse, cracking badly in the mountain time trial, but seemed a more relaxed maillot jaune in last year's Tour. That, he says, was a short but enjoyable experience.
"Being in yellow was really nice, but it passed so quickly. Four days is not very much when I had so many things to do. I had some times in the hotel when I took off the yellow jersey and put it over the back of the chair; then you really realise what you have.
"We were focussed to keep these jerseys, to ride full gas," he continued, describing the decision to seize the moment and enjoy yellow and green rather than easing back and waiting until later on in the Tour. "The team gave 100 percent so that we could keep it for four days. For sure, when you ride only for the [final] general classification, you would not spend so much energy. You believe that you can lose the yellow jersey, take it easy, and then maybe get it back later in the race."
Kirchen is now staring down the barrel of another Tour, facing three hard weeks in the saddle that he hopes will bring more success. He accepts that the 2008 start was better for his yellow jersey aspirations because of the lack of a prologue and the uphill sprint finish on day one.
But, while he admits it will be hard for him to win the day one race against the clock, he says that his Columbia HTC squad are 'really strong' in the team time trial and that he thinks it is possible to get time back there. He'd grab the chance of another maillot jaune.
As regards his ambitions for the race, he wants to improve on his previous showings. "If I look at last year, I lost too much time in the uphill," he said. "I lost six minutes on the Alpe d'Huez, I felt bad that time, and I lost four minutes in another uphill finish.
"I also had bad luck as well with a broken wheel. I didn't want to risk the seventh spot on a downhill, so I lost time there as well."
That was the stage which finished on Prato Nevoso in Italy, and cost him one place in the final overall standings. "I climbed at the same speed as the other guys, but ended up losing a minute [actually 1'31 to eventual winner Carlos Sastre - ed.]; in other words, the time I lost by changing the rear wheel," he said. "Counting the time I lost in these ways gives me a lot of motivation. I would have been in the first five otherwise.
"I think this year will be a little bit better in the uphill for me. I trained a little bit more there and I feel more confident on the climbs. So I think I can be really close to the podium. I can't say that I can win the Tour de France, but the first five or even the podium is a goal I have set."
As far as rivals are concerned, Kirchen has three in mind. Contador and Evans are, based on the Dauphiné and what they have done in the past, the two big favourites. He also rates Denis Menchov, after his Giro win. Of the others, he admits that he doesn't know what to expect from Lance Armstrong, and feels that Andy Schleck might lack consistency and have a bad day.
And what about his own team? "After so many victories, after a Tour de Suisse like we had, the morale can't be better," he said, clearly proud of his team’s acheivements. "We are relaxed and we are focused on the first week with Cavendish and also the time trials. The team is very strong now and I think we will already have some success early on... If the Tour goes like last year, I think we can be very, very happy about it."