Oh my god they signed Kenny!

When FDJ hesitated, British super team jumped in to sign the talented Frenchman

When FDJ hesitated to renew Kenny Elissonde's contract at the end of the 2016 season, Team Sky made their move. It was an unexpected, somewhat left field signing for the British WorldTour team, who until that point had only registered two Frenchmen on their books since their inception in 2010.

Elissonde, 25, has of course been touted as a promising climber ever since he first surfaced at the junior rankings, but in Team Sky's perceived universe of power over panache, how would the Frenchman – who one could describe as more Riquelme than Ronaldo, fit into a machine refined on consistent efficiency?

Yet the transfer went through, and at the start of the 2017 Elissonde, once a jewel in Marc Madiot's crown, crossed the channel to join Chris Froome, Dave Brailsford and the Sky armada.

Staying at FDJ was the easy option

Until you actually see the 5-foot-5-inch climber in Sky's casual attire the transfer still doesn't quite register, but here he is, striding down the steps at the lobby of the Adelaide Hilton, at the Tour Down Under - his Sky baseball cap tilted to one side, Sky-covered iPhone in one hand and a warm handshake in the other.

"When you're French it's quite easy to just stay in France and have that comfort," he tells us as he relaxes into the interview almost straight away.

"There are some good teams, like FDJ, but I felt that if I didn't make the move now I might never have left. Each year I passed with the team I felt a bit more 'safe' so when this opportunity came to me I had to say 'let's go' because it was a bit, now or never."

Elissonde came through the ranks at FDJ, and under the leadership of Madiot and the coaching of Julien Pinot he had flourished, at times. There was the memorable stage win on the Angliru at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana, a promising result at the Tour of Oman that same year, and of course a valiant top-20 at the 2015 Vuelta. Riders such as Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil may have progressed at faster knots but Elissonde was, and still is, regarded as a brilliant climber on his day.

At the end of 2016, however, he needed a change. Quick-Step and Team Sky had shown interest some years earlier but the British team had kept closer tabs during the intervening years. After taking time to mull over the offer from Brailsford – and in the end the chance to re-sign at FDJ – the Nice-based rider decided to gamble. Cutting ties after such a long relationship is never an easy move for an athlete, however, and Elissonde, as he waves to his old teammates when they walk past in the lobby, admits that taking the plunge comes with risks.

"As a French rider, on a French team, everything is so easy. When you're in a foreign team you need to make so much more effort. At the end of my career I want to say that I've been through an experienced journey.

"This move, it puts me under pressure because if I want to do the big races then I really need to perform. There are a lot of teammates who can do the job you talk about," he says when asked about Sky's habit of sitting on the front and controlling races, "but maybe that's what I need to do to help bring me up a level. You need to be strong just to make the team at Sky.

"Sure, the French media were surprised [by the move] but I didn't see anything special. I was in contact with Sky a few times. Back in 2013 I talked to them a bit. When I was an amateur I had talked to Rod Ellingworth. The media maybe were a bit surprised but I can't really speak for them."

Telling a boss like Madiot that you are leaving for Team Sky is not a duty most riders would relish. The FDJ manager is in many ways the antithesis of Brailsford. Madiot waves away those who converse in marketing speak and marginal fantasies, and has a more resolutely old-school approach to the world of cycling.

"Telling him… it was pretty simple," Elissonde says before a lengthy pause.

"We talked. I was honest and straightforward. I said, 'Marc, I have an opportunity. Thanks for everything that you did for me.' I had a great time but I wanted to have another experience. I'm sure that he understands. He wished me good luck and there was no tension. I still have good contact so when we see each other at races there's no problem. You can't have five years together and not have respect for each other."

Elissonde smiles as he recounts part of what Madiot left him with before the two said their final goodbyes. "He said, 'Now I will have someone to support at the team.' You need guys like Marc in cycling. No one at Sky dislikes him, not at all. It's just different personalities. The passion for cycling is the same."

Kenny Elissonde signs on at the Tour Down Under

A new culture

However, in many senses Team Sky and FDJ are different worlds. Budget, culture, and without any disrespect to the French team, the disparity in quality at the teams is visible too. The question has to be asked: How will an enigmatic 59kg climber fit into a team that that historically signed domesticated rouleurs and turned them into 'Skybots'?

"I can't really say if it's my style or not," Elissonde says.

"At FDJ we never raced like that because we maybe weren't able to do that. We had a strong leader but we also had chances to go in breaks, that's true. For me, I used to like the big breaks as I showed on the Angliru in 2013, and then last year in the Vuelta I was in a break and came close to winning another stage.

"I want to be a good climber and continue my progression. Of course, I hope it suits me here because for sure it doesn't suit everyone. We've seen that with some riders. I just want it to work for me. Everyone has really helped me and I think it's a much different team to how everyone perceives. A lot of people think that it's a robotic and cold team, but it's not like that."

Elissonde has a point. In the last two years Team Sky's transfer policy has evolved. They still pay the best, and as a result sign the best, but men like Michael Rogers, Nicolas Roche, and even Bradley Wiggins, have been swapped for the Henaos, Rosas and Landas of the world, but along with the challenge of breaking into a tougher squad, Elissonde is also facing up to the realisation that pulling on Sky kit comes with a deeper level of scrutiny.

"It's not easy to be a Team Sky rider. Sometimes in races, even with supporters, they've had hard times. Maybe that brings the riders closer together but there's a lot of pressure. As a group that makes you stronger when you come through something like that. We train hard together and that brings you closer. Maybe closer than in some other teams."

With a glut of negative press circulating around Team Sky in recent months, Elissonde has certainly picked an interesting time to join.

"I don't really feel it. They make sure the riders focuses on performance. I've spent time with Chris Froome and all we've done is concentrate on riding. Maybe behind the scenes it's a hard time for the team. You never know with some stories but I have to say it's not had the same impact in France. In the UK it's a really big story with Dave and Brad.

"This move, it's a change and with every change you learn a lot. So far I can't really put a finger on what's different. Everything is different. Everything is the same. If I look at each area I can find changes, like the way both teams race, the nationalities, the culture and the training but at the same time if I'd moved to any other team it still would have been different to FDJ."

Having linked up with Froome for a January training camp and then been whisked away for the Tour Down Under at the last minute, Elissonde is somewhat unclear about his race programme. He will race the Sun Tour with his team leader and Paris-Nice is an option for March. The Tour de France, though, is far from certain with the Vuelta a Espana a more likely target later in the season. In many ways, Elissonde starts the campaign with a blank canvas.

"I don't really have a preference but maybe Paris-Nice would be good because I live in Nice. At the same time, that race comes with a lot of pressure because we'd be going there for the win. I'll go where the team thinks is best for me. It's a mistake for me to say, 'I want to go here or here,' because I don't really know where the team need me to be efficient."

Efficiency? If Elissonde is already talking like a Team Sky rider he's halfway there.

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