By Andrew Hood
After a taste of the yellow jersey in the 2008 Tour de France, Kim Kirchen is taking aim for even more in 2009.
The 30-year-old isn’t standing up and calling himself a candidate for overall victory, but he is staking out a realistic goal of the top-5 and, with a little luck, the podium.
With back-to-back seventh place Tour finishes, Kirchen has the confidence that his time trialing has improved enough to let him expect to make further improvements in 2009.
The Luxembourger admits that he’ll never be able to climb like the slender mountain goats in the high cols, but he also knows that his all-round skills that delivered a Tour stage win in 2007 and four days in yellow in 2008 are just what he needs to aim for more.
He’s not forgetting about the spring classics, however. With his breakthrough victory in Flèche Wallonne last year, Kirchen believes he can win on any of the Ardennes classics.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Kirchen at the team’s training camp last month on Mallorca to talk about Flèche, the yellow jersey and his relationship with the Schleck brothers. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: How has your success last year helped ahead of this season?
Kim Kirchen: I have more confidence now. I am more relaxed because I know what I am capable of. I know what I have to do, how to prepare and how you have to go about getting ready for the races. Actually, I started off last season really easy. I almost was a little bit scared, but the form came on really fast in the decisive part of the season. It was great at País Vasco. I got two wins there, and that gave me extra motivation for the classics. Now I am not stressed. I know if I do the work, the form will come and hopefully the results.
VN: How would you classify your 2008 season?
KK: For sure it was my best season. The team was even better. We had a lot of confidence. To win Flèche Wallonne was a real honor. And to win it in those weather conditions was even better. It’s not as if I like the bad weather, I just go better that some of the others. We are more used to bad weather in Luxembourg. You have to know when you have to go in the races and, in the rain, that makes it even harder.
VN: And then the Tour, with the yellow jersey?
KK: The first week of the Tour was ideal for me. There were a few stages with two or three-kilometer uphill finishes that were great. It was too bad that there weren’t time bonuses. I really wanted to win that first stage, but I didn’t get it. The first time trial was a surprise on how well I did. That’s really motivated me. Now I know I can do well in the time trials. That’s a big progress for me.
Classics first loveVN: After your successful season, what will change for you in 2009?
KK: Not a whole lot. I haven’t changed. There are some new riders, but the sporting goals for me remain exactly the same. It’s the classics and the Tour de France.
VN: What’s the next challenge with the classics?
KK: Now I’ve won Flèche, that gives me more confidence for the classics. I’d like to aim for Milan-San Remo and Liège. Those races are longer and maybe I have to lose a little weight to go 260km. That’s the goal for the classics this year.
VN: Do you consider yourself more of a Tour rider or classics rider?
KK: Belgium is like a second home for me. The classics are the biggest races of the year. You have to be focused on that day to win. I’ve raced Flanders twice, but I am not sure if I will do it. I have to go to the País Vasco. It’s perfect preparation for the Ardennes. It gives you the legs you need to win in the classics. You cannot win the classics just by preparation. You have to race to get the legs.
VN: Which is better for you, Liège or Amstel?
KK: Amstel is much more aggressive and dangerous than people realize. You really have to know where to be on the roads. If you lose two positions on those climbs, it takes a huge effort to get back. Liège is more about endurance, to be able to follow the moves over a longer distance. You have to be able to react when the moves come.
Riding in yellowVN: After the classics, you had a great Tour and rode in the yellow jersey, what did mean for you?
KK: That was really nice. I can hardly remember even having it on. It was actually a lot stress. You realize how much extra effort it takes to lead the race every day. You’re always in a hurry to go to the podium, to controls, to press conferences. You’re one hour later for everything – eating, massage, resting. I can hardly remember anything, but when I was back in the hotel and I had the jersey hanging on a chair, that’s when you see the jersey. That was very special. Then the next day you’re so focused on how you’re going to defend it, how you’re going to ride. There’s too much to do to think about that you’re wearing the yellow jersey. It’s only now when I look at pictures that I can realize how important it is.
VN: Does having the yellow jersey change you at all as a person or as a rider?
KK: Life only changes when you want it to. Some media are more interested in me, but people who know me from the past know I haven’t changed.
VN: You lost the jersey on the stage to Hautacam, did you have realistic expectations to defend it that day?
KK: I knew it would be very hard to keep it that day. I had to give it my all. I was still among the top 10 over the Tourmalet, which was good because there were some riders who weren’t there, like Cunego and Valverde. The Hautacam was just a little too hard for me. I went up at my own speed because I didn’t want to totally crack. I think I lost about four and a half minutes.
VN: Were you satisfied that you managed to defend the jersey as long as you did?
KK: We wanted to defend it as long as we could. I was a little tired from the first week and you lose a lot of energy with the jersey. We felt great having the jersey and we didn’t want to give it up without a fight. We had four days in yellow. We were strong and we showed we were there. But keeping the jersey after the Hautacam was just too unrealistic.
Aiming for podium spotVN: After the yellow jersey experience, how have your goals for the Tour changed?
KK: I knew when I concentrated on the GC, I could finish in the top 10. I’ve always been close in GC. Making those improvements in the time trial was important. I really worked hard on the time trial and I think I can still progress. Maybe I can aim for the podium. I know I’ll never be able to follow the best over the big mountains.
VN: Do you believe that you can win a Tour?
KK: I’m not a rider who believes straight away I can win. There are always some days some shit can happen. As a rider, I have to be very attentive. I am not too far away from the podium, but I am not too close either. The top-5 is realistic, then the podium is within reach.
VN: It will be a tougher field in 2009?
KK: Contador and Astana will be back. And with Armstrong, we just don’t know how he will ride. My goal is to do better than I did last year. For me, that is the top 5 and maybe the podium. I am not a guy who is going to say I am ready to win the Tour.
VN: You’re an all-rounder, how much more can you improve your climbing?
KK: It’s true I need to improve my climbing. I want to be good in everything. I like to sprint, I like to time trial and I like to climb. You need to be able to do all those things to achieve your goals. If you’re so focused on one thing, you give up something else. If I only focused on climbing, I would lose strength in the time trial or sprints. That way there are a lot of opportunities for victories.
Luxembourg ambassadorVN: There was a lot in the media last year about your relationship with the Schleck brothers, how well do you get along?
KK: We come from the same country and we’re teammates on the national team. The relationship was very good before. We have different thoughts about tactics and training. Everyone has their own ideas. We are three good riders from a small nation. We are all motivated to get good results. There is a rivalry between us. That’s healthy, because that shows we’re coming up strong. We’re happy to have this now, three big riders from Luxembourg. It’s OK. We’re not best friends, we’re not at war, but we talk to each other. We’re responsible.
VN: Suddenly Luxembourg is at the top of the peloton, with you and the Schleck brothers?
KK: For a nation of only 500,000, it’s very special for Luxembourg. We’re a small nation, so it’s important to have victories and to wear the yellow jersey. We all race hard for the national team. We’re proud. Cycling is really coming back again.
Anti-doping stanceVN: What’s your view of the controls and new anti-doping efforts?
KK: With the biological passport, the ADAMS system; that’s what we have to do. Clean riders don’t have a problem with any of it. The problem will be when there’s a mistake made or when someone misses a test by a mistake. We have to take it all very seriously. We cannot afford any more mistakes in cycling. We all have to be very organized now with the new testing. It’s not always the easiest thing to do. It takes time. We have to accept in cycling that that’s the only way we can survive. This is one way to clean up the sport, to get these cheaters. That’s why I am here (Columbia), to be a clean rider. That’s what we have to do in the sport. It’s reality.
VN: You were second to Schumacher in the time trial, will you consider that a victory?
KK: It’s like a victory for me when I already crossed the line second. If I get the win officially, well, that’s another thing. I still have the chance to cross the line first in the Tour. Of course, I am happy that people are getting caught. That’s the way we have to go in cycling now. It’s still very disappointing that it’s still happening.