By Hedwig Kröner in Pau
The youngest rider of this year's Tour de France is Francaise des Jeux' Thomas Lövkvist. The 21 year-old Swede is also riding his very first Tour, and as expected, he finds it difficult. "It's hard, really hard," he told Cyclingnews before stage 16's start in Mourenx. "Everything is just more than in any other race; more people, higher speed... I expected it to be this hard, but now I realize how hard it actually is and that's still a different feeling."
Nevertheless, the youngster is getting through the race quite well, fortunately healthy but of course not as fresh as before the three-week torture. "Overall, I'm a bit tired, but I hope to make it to Paris," he said. "It's hard on the whole body, especially the climbing which gets to your knees. Other than that, it's just this deep fatigue but I guess that's the same for everyone."
Lövkvist, who placed second at the Tour de l'Avenir and won the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2004, got over the high mountains in the later groups, and is particularly impressed with the stages' starts. "The starts of these breakaway stages are very nervous, and very fast. During the first hour, we're really on the limit of how fast you can actually ride a bike - I mean, we do something like 70 km/h in those moments. Before the break goes, everybody wants to stay in front, and it's like a sprint, only not at the end of a stage, but in the beginning. You need to have a really good day to get in the break. But you have to find a moment when the bunch stops a bit so you can get a gap, otherwise it's impossible," he explained.
Wondering what he thought about the timing of his first Tour de France, we asked Lövkvist if he thought that he could have done it earlier, too, or if it was just the right year now? "I don't know," he said, taking the time to reflect on the question. "I don't really feel myself developing, I just get closer to the big guys. I mean, the steps I take to get better are so small, I don't really notice them. But I have probably progressed the last two years - I guess I could have followed a couple of stages before but I wouldn't have been able to do the whole Tour."
The long-term goals of the Swede are high at the Tour de France, but interestingly enough, one doesn't get the impression that he overestimates himself when he talks about them. "I'm only 21 now, but my aim is to be up there one day, and try to win this Tour. But there are still a lot of years to go before I'll be at that point. The next years I just have to get through it again and again, to get the hardness in my body. Right now, I just want to get the experience, get to Paris. Watch and learn, that's what I do." Lövkvist gives a focused, dedicated impression - surprisingly serious for a 21 year-old. His directeur sportif was right: he's not too young for the Tour.