Stefan Küng (Groupama FDJ) was originally aiming to end his Classic campaign at Paris-Roubaix – a race he counts as the most beautiful one-day race on the calendar – but with the French Monument postponed Küng finds himself heading into the Tour of Flanders with one last shot this spring.
The Swiss champion is naturally better suited to the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix but his growing reputation in the Classics was highlighted by noticeable rides in Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Saxo Bank Classic.
“The form heading into the race is pretty good. I suffered a bit in the heat at Dwars door Vlaanderen but until the lights went out the legs were really good. I can take quite a bit of confidence out of recent races,” he told Cyclingnews ahead of Sunday’s showdown.
“The Classics have been a big aim for me this year. Usually the highlight comes at the end with Paris-Roubaix but once more I’ll miss out on that but once more I’ll try and do my best in Flanders, because the Classics are the main goal in the first part of the season.”
The Classics have been a work in progress for Kung since he turned professional in 2015. He worked for Greg Van Avermaet at BMC Racing but then ventured to Marc Madiot’s squad when the American team switched to the CCC colours. His height and stature were initial hurdles when it came to the accelerations over the climbs in Belgium but in the last few years he has gradually improved to the point where Groupama trust him as one of their leaders. Now Küng has firmly established himself as more than a time triallist, particularly with his third place in Yorkshire at the Worlds in 2019.
“I’ve always liked the one-day races, especially the ones where there’s a lot of wind and there’s echelons," said Küng. "For the Classics, I really struggled a bit when I was a neo pro because with some of the hills here in Flanders I’m on the upper limit weight wise for these races but if I could pick one race it would be Paris-Roubaix.
"It’s the most beautiful race but the Classics come with all these other races in Flanders and I like them a lot too. I put Paris-Roubaix just above the others but when I worked with Greg Van Avermaet of course I learned that Flanders was the most important race on the calendar. I slowly got into it, year after year, and now I’m more comfortable than ever with these races in Flanders.”
By his own admission, Küng has never shone in Flanders. He’s never made the top-40, but he knows that if he can race the correct strategy, and make use of his dark horse tag, then a top result is very much possible.
“I’ve never scored a big result here in Flanders. Last year I was sick coming into the race with a fever and I was in bed during the recon. I think I can go really far on Sunday though, but as we’ve seen in the races so far I’ve been active, but maybe too active at times. I can’t afford to race like this on Sunday because it’s going to be a grind of a race and you have to be aware of the efforts that you make. The strategy will be to try and go as deep as possible into the race and then see what I have left,” he said.
“I’m not a guy who asks for or needs the whole team around me. I prefer it when we have cards to play. I’m pretty good at positioning myself in the bunch and taking advantage of other teams or riders making the efforts."
By utilising that tactic, Küng believes the team can race at its best.
"What we’re aiming for is that the race opens up nice and early and that it’s really hard from then on," said the 27 year old. "That gives us the chance to slide into moves and maybe take a step ahead of Van der Poel and Van Aert, because we saw last year that when they go it’s really hard to follow.”
While he cannot rely on a sprint finish like some of his rivals, Küng can draw inspiration from Alberto Bettiol. Both riders are strong against the clock and Küng – like Bettiol was two years ago – could be a surprise package on Sunday.
The wind looks like it’s going to be a tailwind for the last ten kilometres, just as it was two years ago when Bettiol won the race, which he certainly hadn't entered as the favourite. That shows that after 240 kilometres of racing you never know who is going to have that extra punch at the end.
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