INTERVIEW: STEFAN KÜNG
The BMC rider came within a whisker of wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour. Is he the next great Swiss time triallist?
Twenty-two years old and alone in his hotel room, Stefan Küng readied himself for his last chance to race against a man who had set a new paradigm of dominance over the past decade. It was the night before the Swiss national time trial championships in 2016. The young rider told himself that it was now or never.
“I knew it was the last chance to compare myself with Fabian,” he says. “I was like, ‘You have to win this, you must win this,’ not, ‘You can, or if everything goes well you might win it’.
“I put myself under a lot of pressure… and that’s maybe what made me risk too much and what made me crash.”
Küng overcooked a corner on a descent, smashed his collarbone, fractured his hip and put himself out of racing for three months, including a debut Olympic team pursuit. He’d already been fortunate not to have hurt himself six weeks earlier when he slid out of a right-hand bend at the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia in Apeldoorn. There he jumped back on his bike, found the pedal was broken, switched to his spare and finished 30 seconds down on the stage winner Tom Dumoulin. At the halfway mark, before the crash, he was just one second behind him. What might have been. He’d been too eager to perform.
The step from world class to world’s best, that final step in a gifted athlete’s career, is the toughest. Most will never make it, although every once in a while someone comes along, like Cancellara, and makes it look easy. You need talent, but with talent comes expectation and with expectation comes pressure. And under pressure, with one foot off the ground, it’s tempting to aim for something just beyond your reach. You have to belong on the top step of the podium and you have to be ready for it.
“Stefan was looking for that breakthrough result and that led him to make mistakes, or take too many risks. He had crashes in the past which were just caused by a little bit of over-reaching,” explains Marco Pinotti, his coach at BMC who is also a former world class time triallist himself. “The more results he gets, the more he will maximise his ability. He won’t search for the results but focus on the process.”
Küng belongs on the top step of the podium, but in 2016 he wasn’t quite ready. This year, however, he finished second by five seconds to Geraint Thomas in the opening time trial in Düsseldorf in his debut Tour de France. A month or so later, this quiet rider – the one who Thomas, in his German time trial hotseat, knew only as “that guy from BMC” - finally announced himself with his first WorldTour TT win at the Binckbank Tour.
“I have the confidence now that if everything goes well I can win stuff, like Binckbank or in Düsseldorf,” he says. “I really have what it needs. I maybe don’t have to risk too much.”
THE BIG BREAK
Valerio Piva, one of Küng’s team managers at BMC, has an enviable record with the sport’s best time triallists. At Mapei, T-Mobile, Highroad and BMC he has worked with all but three of the riders who have worn the rainbow jersey since 1999, including Cancellara, Tony Martin, Michael Rogers and Jan Ullrich.
“When he wins one big time trial, then he’ll win the second and I think then he’ll have got started. It’s a question of time” Valerio Piva, BMC team manager
“I start analysing what was good, what wasn’t so good, what can I do better? I haven’t reached my maximum yet”
“I can’t say he’ll be the one who dominates for five or six years like Tony or Fabian, but for me he has the talent and capacity to do that; the numbers are there,” Piva says. “When he wins one big TT then he’ll win the second and I think then he’ll have got started. It’s a question of time.”
The talent has always been there with Küng, a product of the Swiss national junior programme under Daniel Gisiger, a double winner of the GP des Nations TT. Gisigier’s highly-rated regime balanced road and track with building well-rounded human beings rather than obedient riding robots. Five graduates, all born in the 1990s, have progressed through the BMC Development Team to the WorldTour squad: Küng, Tom Bohli, Kilian Frankiny and Silvan Dillier, plus stagiaire Patrick Müller. There are four more on the development team, which is closing at the end of this season. Küng is the most gifted of the lot. Natural talent bursts out of his wide shoulders, which still carry some of the bulk he picked up on the way to winning his individual pursuit world title in 2015, before he became only the fourth man in history to ride under 4:15 later that autumn. He pedals with the sort of class that distorts his actual speed - he’s a 6ft 4 elongated, viscous version of the preceding Swiss time trial maestro, but with Cancellara’s frantic, muscular cadence exchanged for powerful strokes oozing with pine resin from the boards in Grenchen.
Küng’s vast engine has anchored BMC’s team time trial successes since 2015 (including a world title that year) and delivered the brute force for each of his own race wins, but crucially Küng has the obsessive, analytical mindset of a consummate time triallist. Win or lose, he explains, “I just start analysing: what was good, what wasn’t so good, what can I do better? Because I haven’t reached my maximum yet, I’m sure of it.”
His family and girlfriend have to deal with the downsides of this perfectionism when it spills over into the kitchen. “I don’t
want to do it just ‘good’, I want to do it ‘perfect’,” he says of his cooking.
“I demand a lot of myself,” he adds. “If I really want to do it well then I want to do it as perfectly as possible.”
With no time trial victories in his two neopro years despite strong performances (see box), Küng became frustrated with his failure to win in the WorldTour as he had done in the lower ranks. It was a frustration which Piva eloquently describes as “trying to ride faster than time”.
“Mentally he’s very strong - he is a winner, he wants to win – but he needs to deal with these moments when he doesn’t win,” Piva says.
Then of course there’s Cancellara, the éminence Suisse in the national sporting psyche. The Swiss are a little more grown up about these things than the febrile Flemish public, who are experts in crushing a young rider’s progress by heralding them as the reincarnation of their previous twowheeled Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, for over a decade Swiss cycling was Cancellara and Cancellara was Swiss cycling. His legacy plays mind games with young Swiss riders. He is an inescapable part of who they are and who they are trying to be.
“Sometimes I get the impression that people think it’s just so easy, you know?” Küng muses. “If you’re good then you’re gonna be the best, because Fabian was the best, and he could announce: ‘I’m going to win today,’ boom, and he won by one minute. But it’s not that easy.
“Maybe I’m not gifted with as much talent as Fabian was. I don’t know. What I know now is that I have to go my way, I will go my own way, and I won’t compare myself with Fabian.”
Küng lives and trains in Germanspeaking Switzerland, close to where he was born and raised in Wilen. But inspiration also comes from maverick Scottish time trial and pursuit specialist Graeme Obree, who tore up the rulebook with his attempts to break the Hour Record in the early 1990s. Küng won’t be disassembling washing machines and living off jam sandwiches any time soon – “my engineering skills aren’t as good as his” – but he carries an Obree philosophy. “He did it differently,” Küng explains. “Along came this crazy guy from Scotland, with his own bike. He moved every obstacle out of his way and kept on going. It’s a good message for life: if you believe in yourself you’re able to achieve so many things that you might not even dare to dream of.”
A STATE OF MIND
Following three physical setbacks – he also fractured his T9 vertebra at the 2015 Giro and spent three months out, before glandular fever hit him for six in early 2016 – Küng is at last free of injury and illness. The start of 2017, following his first winter off the track, should have seen his career shift up a gear. Instead, he was in regular meetings with a sports psychologist.
The pressure, the expectation, the selfanalysis, plus those two rides in the race ambulance, fired Küng’s mind into overdrive. He overthought his time trials. He became anxious as he couldn’t help but visualise the worst outcomes of tubular
tyres rolling off during fast descents. He began to doubt the talent that had brought him this far. His bounce was gone; his performances and wellbeing suffered.
“If your computer doesn’t work right, you do a reset. That’s kind of what I did with myself, a mental reset,” he explains. “I had my routine before, but my mind kept attacking itself with distracting thoughts. Nowadays my mental base is so much stronger that these attacks don’t even reach me any more, or not all of them.”
Time trialling is about finding that thin line of risk; push too much and you crash, push too little and you lose. Mentally equipped to trust in what he already knew he could do, Küng got back to business with two average time trials at the Tour de Romandie, finishing 34th and 21st. His road win on stage 2 showed the form was there, but Küng needed to edge closer towards that line and put the final piece of his puzzle in place. By Düsseldorf he’d done it. Since June he hasn’t placed outside the top 10 in a time trial, except for 25th on a lumpy World Championships course in Bergen not suited to his strengths.
“When I really feel on it, I don’t even check the start list,” he says. “I don’t care who’s there. I just do my thing. And then the others do theirs. And in the end we see who’s the best.”
You only have to look at Küng’s past wins to see where his path leads. In the 2015 Tour de Romandie he took off with almost 30km to go and won alone in Fribourg in the sopping rain. He did it again in 2017; this time three other riders tried to cling on through the sleet but Küng bludgeoned his way through them all. “He has a lot of endurance,” Pinotti says. “He doesn’t fear training hard, training long, training in the cold. He’s a very resilient rider.”
With plans to spend this winter back in the wind tunnel and work on his strength endurance, “That point after 12 minutes where it starts to really, really hurt a lot,” the next chapter in the Stefan Küng bildungsroman will be trying to fill the position of TT supremo left vacant by Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin who, on 2017 form, appears to be past his untouchable best. Beyond that awaits Paris-Roubaix, a race both Küng and the BMC staff believe he can one day win.
Having dealt with the pressure and the expectation, the day will come when Küng will find the line he’s been searching for. He’ll be ready for the top of the podium; all that will be left is to take that final step.
Küng at the Euro Track Championships in 2015 after winning individual pursuit gold
On the cobbles at Paris- Roubaix, a race Küng would like to target in the future
A solo victory in the rain in Romandie in 2015. Küng’s irst win in the WorldTour
The Swiss at the Tour de France on stage 12 this July, his debut in the race
Küng’s irst win against the clock at WT level came in August’s BinckBank Tour