Kenny Elissonde to Team Sky was one of the more surprising transfers of last winter. After five years with the FDJ team, the diminutive climber left his comfort zone to become the only Frenchman on the British team – and only the third in their history.
Cyclingnews sat down with Elissonde in Japan during the recent Saitama Criterium to get the low down on his first season at Team Sky – from marginal gains and mountain trains to the ever-controversial Gianni Moscon and the contrasting personalities of Dave Brailsford and Marc Madiot.
Cyclingnews: How do you look back on your 2017 season?
Kenny Elissonde: It was a good, interesting year with a lot of changes in the way of working and doing things in general. So it was learning experience, a learning year.
CN: How big a change was it?
KE: If I take very single thing I did this year, everything was different at one point. You change your way of eating, your recovery, everything in the background... everything. It was a constant change in my habits. I had five years behind me in the same team, I’d had the same coach since I was 18, so I knew it would be a change but it in the end was quite a big change. I’m glad I did it. It’s good to experience new things.
CN: What was the highlight?
KE: There were quite a few. It was nice to start in Australia, being straight into competition, straight into a WorldTour race with Sky, and going for the win with Sergio [Henao]. The Giro d'Italia was tough but in the end a good experience because sometimes you learn more when it’s tough than when you win and everything is perfect.
Then the Route du Sud was my first race in France, and coming back from my injuries at the Giro, so I was ready to give a hand to Geraint [Thomas] and Wout [Poels], but it ended up me being the leader with them all helping me. I remember at one point being in the wheels of Wout, G, Sergio – it was really crazy to have this whole team helping me, it was a bit surreal. Being on the Tourmalet, having them pulling for me in France on this climb… some of the best leaders in the world don’t get the same help sometimes. It was two or three days in the skin of Chris Froome.
CN: Is that a role you’d like in the future?
KE: I’m happy with what I have right now. I’m a helper, and I still have some opportunities sometimes. At Team Sky, that’s the way it works. I came into the team and I did Tour Down Under and then I was at the Herald Sun Tour and was third on GC, with Chris there also. So in the end you can find the space for your own results if you’re strong enough.
CN: Did you have any problems adapting to the new way of working?
KE: Not really. The way of racing is not so complicated. You just need to be in good shape and have your climbing legs, so just instead of attacking and trying to win some stages, I try to be there in the finale and do my turn as strong as I can.
What I was more afraid about was the fact I only knew a French team, with French people around me. I knew no one at Sky. When I came here there was maybe one person I knew personally. So I was maybe more afraid of this. But from the first training camp in October we had a good time, having some drinks together, it was fun with my teammates. It’s more warm in the team than people tend to think. Even me before, I remember in Lombardia last year, I had signed with the team and was looking across at this big set-up, the big black bus, the cars, the staff, everyone around, I was like ‘wow’. I understand people will see that from the outside and you can say ‘ah it’s too much… they can’t have fun’, but when you’re into it it’s not the same at all. I had lots of fun this year with Team Sky. To be honest I didn’t expect to have this much fun.
CN: What's the main difference between FDJ and Sky?
KE: I would say the big difference is that when you’re coming into a race you always have a leader to win the race, so you always have the pressure to do the right thing. You’re more in the action and little less in the reaction, whereas before maybe we were waiting for the big fish to make their move and then we would say 'maybe today is the day we can go in the break', or 'maybe it’s a day to save energy'. At Sky have to be in the action, because if you’re in the reaction you have already almost lost the race.
CN: What about the difference in culture? Much is made of the supposed contrast between Sky’s ‘marginal gains’ and the perception of French cycling as ‘old-school’.
KE: I would say the French culture in cycling has changed a lot in the last few years. Already in FDJ I felt the change between 2012 and 2016. 2012 was still quite old-school, old fashioned – like training in Brittany in December when it’s freezing, doing six hours. And now they train in Calpe with really good sport science systems. It’s changed quite a lot. It’s the same with AG2R, they’re going to altitude. Romain Bardet really does his homework and his team is stepping up. I don’t feel that the French are unprofessional anymore, not at WorldTour level at least.
Team Sky like to keep going, keep improving but it’s not just Sky; you can see Sunweb, they had an incredible season. They did a lot of work on aerodynamics and everything. The impression in the last few years in cycling is that it's everyone. Team Sky is really conscious of that and are trying to keep this advance and keep working a lot. Now you can feel the level in the peloton is really homogenous. Everyone is at altitude from really early on. There are guys going to volcanoes in January, whereas maybe in the past some riders hadn’t even started training properly. The job of being a cyclist is completely different now.
CN: How do Dave Brailsford and Marc Madiot compare?
KE: They’re two different characters with two difference backgrounds. Marc was a professional in the past, Dave coached on the track with lots of little details. Marc now has confidence in the staff he has in the team. It’s not like it was in the past when he was sitting for like seven hours in the car behind us, saying ‘keep going, keep going’, even if was pouring with rain. In the end it was like, ‘ok maybe it’s not my time anymore and I let the sports scientists do their job’. What he wants is the team working well.
CN: How’s your relationship with Marc since the move? There’s a perception he’s not so fond of Sky.
KE: I also expected he wanted to give me a hard time, because you change like this, but in the end he just wished me good luck. He understood quite well. I’m still in contact with him, and I’m still talking with guys at FDJ. I spent five years there and it’s not like you change your jersey and it’s finished. I’m happy to not leave the team on bad terms because they gave me my chance.
I still remember Marc coming to my parents’ house when I was 18 or 19 and signing the contract with his pen. When you’re young, it’s huge. Marc Madiot, it’s quite a personality. But I guess we are lucky to a have personality like this in French cycling. He’s different, he’s really for the little races, the traditional races in France. It’s nice, because we need these races. He defends something that’s really beautiful. We need people like this. We need people who are not afraid to say what they think. In this world, in 2017, it’s nice to still have people like him.
CN: How have you found working under Brailsford?
KE: Already it’s really good. It’s really good to speak with him. You can feel he knows what to say at which moment, and when is good not to say anything. He will motivate you. He sends me messages, and after the Giro he had a few points. When you feel you can have a call whenever you like, drop him a line, it’s good to feel that support. We know he’s a very busy person, and when you feel he puts some time to spend with you, drop you a line, call you when he knows you’re in a bad place, you feel grateful and it gives you more motivation.
CN: How involved has he been, given the external controversies he’s faced this year?
KE: It was a special year for the team and for him, but we didn’t feel it, in the race. We were focused on what we could do, trying to win races. I was new in the team and at a few points he gave me his hand to help me. It was always, ‘if you need to call me you call me’, or ‘how is it being in the team?’. He wanted to know, to have some information to help me because they knew the first year in Team Sky is not always the easiest.
CN: Do you feel like a better rider?
KE: I feel I’m a better rider in the general sense. I made some improvements physically, but it’s also more a way of coping with things, in the race and out of the race. I feel more experienced. You take a lot of experience in a year with the team, so in that sense I feel like a better rider.
CN: What are your ambitions now for the coming years?
KE: I would like to keep going on this way, keep improving, doing what I like. I love Grand Tours, it’s my thing. I’m pretty sure where I’m best is in the mountains in the third week of a Grand Tour. I would love to win Grand Tours, through other riders. To be a helper and win a Grand Tour, I think that’s a massive achievement. The next step in my career is to be a good helper in the mountains for a guy who can win a Grand Tour. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen this year in the Giro, but I would like to go back. Going full gas for the Giro, trying to win it, would be nice.
CN: Are you happy with a pure domestique role?
KE: For the moment, yes. I’m happy with the idea of trying to win big with a guy who has more of a capacity to do it. I’ve done the Vuelta trying to be top 15 on GC and at the same time trying to win stages but not taking too many risk because I was also on GC. So, I’m trying to go full in that new role. I actually quite appreciate the fight of being full gas on a climb, and having the world’s best on the wheel.
CN: Yet, that way of riding seems to draw criticism each July.
KE: I can understand people want to see more attacks, but sometimes this is the way of our leader. I was in the Vuelta a Burgos with Mikel Landa. He won it, and he wanted a more ‘movement’ race, more big accelerations on the climbs, more violent – this is how he wanted to work. We are not rigid. We adapt with the leader. At Team Sky, we just want to win races.
Take the stage in the Tour for example. AG2R-La Mondiale was on the front on the Izoard stage, from 70km to the finish. They pulled all the time and everyone was happy with that. They did it the Team Sky way and everyone was happy, because they want Romain to win. I understand that, it’s logical – but if AG2R La Mondiale had done it five times and Romain had won, no one would have said it was boring.
We're just trying to win races. This year it was quite exciting having Mikel up front and Froomey behind. I think they want to do this quite a lot right now – have two leaders. If we can do attacks, we prefer to attack. But we cannot sacrifice the chances of our leader just for the spectacle.
CN: It’s more the dominance in itself that people tire of…
KE: It was the same with Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. Anquetil was a really classy rider, and he was French, but people were in love with Poulidor, because he wasn’t winning.
CN: Being in quite a unique situation, as former teammate of Kevin Reza and Sebastien Reichenbach, what’s your opinion on the Gianni Moscon controversies?
KE: I try to stay as neutral as I can. Obviously I’m not objective, I’m from another team. The FDJ guys are still my friends, while he is my teammate, and when you’re teammates you’re also quite close. It’s a special situation to be in, a tricky situation. So I try to not think too much about it. I would love to think the thing with Kevin, my friend, was something said in the adrenaline of a sprint, and not some words you really think about. I try to stay neutral because I’m not in position to judge.
CN: Is it not hard to continue to have respect for your teammate?
KE: I don’t know him enough to make a judgement. I don’t think he’s a bad person. It’s tricky. He’s an unbelievable rider. He has a lot of energy and maybe sometimes a bit too much, I don’t know.
He’s conscious he made a mistake with Kevin. In that race in Italy [where Moscon has been accused of pushing Reichenbach off his bike -ed] it was my job to help him, and after the race he will say thank you, he will treat you as a teammate, and I respect him for this.
What he did outside the bike, I don’t think about it, and I try not to judge. I will not go to Gianni and say ‘what are you doing?’ That’s not my business. As a person I don’t like these stories, and as a rider I just want to focus on my time on the bike and not be involved in this story.