A Paris-Roubaix third marked just how far Stefan Küng has come as a Classics rider and, while taking to the podium of a Monument was no small feat, the Groupama-FDJ rider is looking at the small cobblestone trophy that comes with the lower podium positions as a reminder of what could be ahead.
It is the seventh time the 28-year-old has ridden Paris-Roubaix, but never before has he finished above 11th place though after a run of top-ten results in the last month, including a podium at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, Küng's expectations changed ahead of this year’s edition.
“I did a really big step this year,” said Küng at the post-race press conference. “I was riding these races on a different level than last year and also, mentally I am really confident now that I can actually follow the best and be part of the race until the final.”
Which is precisely what he did at Paris-Roubaix, even after a far from ideal start.
“When you have this confidence you also stay calm in critical situations, like in the beginning of the race," said Küng. "You, just have to stay calm and you know that Roubaix is such a hard and long race everything can still happen.”
The critical situation Küng was referring to this time was an early race split in the crosswinds, one he was not on the right side of. With Ineos Grenadiers driving the pace at the front the gap quickly stretched, putting many key favourites in a difficult situation, including Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
“It didn't start very well,” said Küng of the race. “We were all a bit on the backfoot with a lot of other favourites in this second group after 60km. Just before i had to stop for a nature break so I was at the back of the group.
“Then everybody was looking at each other a little bit … but thanks to my team, we stayed up there. We stayed in contention. We were able to turn it around.”
It took a lot of chasing to do it, but once back in contention Küng kept pushing toward the front of the splintered race, which in the dry conditions and fiercely aggressive tactics, played out at a rapid pace. Race winner Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) covered the 257.2 kilometres in just five hours and thirty seven minutes.
The Swiss rider said that there were a number of factors that played into the speed of the race, the fastest edition ever, from technological advances with equipment to the conditions but that it also came down to the way the race unfolded.
“There was not one dull moment in the whole race and so we never slowed down,” said Küng.
It was, unsurprisingly then, a worn group of Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious), Tom Devriendt (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert), Van Aert and Küng who came to the line to battle for the final two steps on the podium, 1:47 after Van Baarle had secured victory and the heavy cobblestone trophy that goes with it.
“We were all at the end of our rope”, said Küng. “I looked at their faces and I could tell they were as tired as I was. I then said to myself that I had to try from far in the velodrome.
“I still did quite a lot of track cycling during my first professional years and in my youth. So, I came from behind with momentum, and it was also a mental battle from then on. I didn’t manage to make Van Aert crack, but it was enough to finish on the podium.”
Third place was Groupama-FDJ's best result in the race since 1997 – when Frédéric Guesdon won and it was also a first time on the podium at a Monument for Küng and he has a cobblestone trophy to remember it by, albeit one small enough to be held one handed.
“For sure, I would prefer to be on the top step and win such a race but its [the podium] a big achievement. It’s such a hard race, it's such an iconic race,” said Küng.
“I always keep saying this is my favourite race and at least today I was able to show what I am able to do on these cobbles and Roubaix is a race where you have to be in contention for the victory many times to be able to win it once, except for Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen.”
“I just take this small cobblestone, put it in my living room and when I look at it, I know there is still the big brother go for one day.”
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Simone joined the team as Production Editor based in Australia at the start of the 2021 season, having previously worked as Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.
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