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?

Procycling - - Contents - Writer: Richard Abra­ham Pho­tog­ra­phy: Chris Auld*

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.”

CANCELLARA’S SHADOW

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

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