It's not often that a rider arrives at a new team and admits he or she has taken a 'step back.' After three years at IAM Cycling in which he stepped out of the shadows of domestique duty to explore his potential as a stage race leader, Mathias Frank will revert to type in 2017, this time in the colours of AG2R-La Mondiale.
Every rider on the IAM roster has had to seek out a new avenue since it was announced the Swiss team would fold at the end of the season, but it's not that Frank has had to settle for something he'd ordinarily have been unhappy with.
Despite finishing eighth at the Tour de France in 2015, the leadership experiment didn't turn out quite as he'd hoped, and the 29-year-old is perfectly happy to begin shepherding French sensation Romain Bardet as he used to do for Tejay van Garderen at BMC Racing.
"At IAM I got the chance to find out what I was capable of," Frank tells Cyclingnews at AG2R's first off-season gathering in the French Alps. "But then I found out that I was struggling sometimes to perform under pressure.
"It's hard put my finger on it. For me it's always been hard to predict my shape. Some guys can really time it. For me it's more about the feeling, whether it comes or not. Then it's hard to be a leader, because on certain days you have to perform."
Frank's talent is plain to see but he hasn't necessarily come away from his three years at IAM with the results to show for it, though his eighth place at the Tour and 2nd place at the Tour de Suisse the previous year were highlights.
His main focus this season revolved around Suisse, his home race, which led into the Tour, but Illness forced him to abandon both, and made up his mind.
"I think this move, for me, it's going one step back, but it was the role I was looking for – being a support rider, but having my own chances in other places.
"I still have the fire, I still want to find out who I am, what I'm capable of as a rider, but without the pressure."
Frank showed what he can do when the pressure is off at this year's Vuelta a España, where he salvaged his season thanks to a stage win on the Mas de la Costa summit finish on stage 17.
"The Vuelta was just a fun race in the end – I had nothing to lose. I just enjoyed myself, really had fun – more fun than I've had for a long time actually. Maybe I should've won more but in the end I won one stage, enjoyed myself, and won back some confidence, and that's all I was looking for."
Bardet is less conservative than van Garderen
Full of confidence, and back in a role he is comfortable with, Frank can't wait to get to work with Bardet. He doesn't have a bad word to say about van Garderen, with whom he remains close, but recognises that his new leader is "a bit less conservative as a rider – he tries more things."
The Frenchman is the clear figurehead and focal point of the team, and his stock continues to rise after he finished runner-up at this year's Tour de France thanks to a swashbuckling stage victory in the Alps.
"He's a super big talent – one of the biggest talents I've seen in the last few years. I'm looking forward to working with him and getting to know him better," says Frank.
"We have this camp and then another one next month, I'm going to do some races with him, we'll get to know each other, get to know how he wants to get things done, how he wants to ride in the peloton.
"I'll be in my 10th year as a pro, I've also worked with some other big champions and I hope I picked up something there, so I think I have some experience to offer him."
Frank points out he will have his own personal opportunities along the line – notably at the Tour de Suisse while Bardet rides the Criterium du Dauphiné – but he insists he'd take just as much satisfaction from being part of someone else's success.
"With Romain we have a guy who's shown he's capable of winning the Tour. It's a dream for me to be part of a winning team at the Tour – that'd be an awesome experience. Coming here, there is a chance I can experience that."
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