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Kenny Elissonde: Art And Cycling

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It’s not every day that you can sit down and discuss the comparative merits of Surrealism and Cubism with a professional cyclist. But 26-year-old French climber Kenny Elissonde is passionate about both. In fact, if he wasn’t such a gifted athlete, he may well have been pursuing a graduate degree in art or history. Instead, he won a mountain stage of the Vuelta a España with French team FDJ and is now a teammate of four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome at Team Sky. Meet Kenny Elissonde.

Words by James Startt | Images by George Solomon and Yuzuru Sunada

PELOTON Magazine: Kenny, it is hard to believe that you have already been a pro for six years. After all, you’re still only 26!

Kenny Elissonde: Yeah, the years do pass quickly. But I had the chance to turn pro quite young. But that’s part of the FDJ team strategy and that’s one of [team manger] Marc Madiot’s trademarks. As a result I was really able to gain a lot of experience very quickly and do things like ride a grand tour already in my second year.

PELOTON: Well, you did more than just ride a grand tour; you won the mythic Angliru stage of the 2013 Vuelta a España when you were still only 22. That must have been amazing. But having such a big success so early can also make things difficult for a young rider starting out. All of a sudden the spotlight is on you and there are higher expectations.

Elissonde: Yeah, it’s amazing to think back on that day. It was pretty much the last day of the Vuelta. I got into this huge breakaway with a group of like 30 riders, but as the stage progressed and the group split up, I stayed near the front. Already I was happy to be in the front group, but then everything just came together. When I think back on those times I think about how carefree you are as a young pro. There is no pressure on you and sometimes things just fall into place like it did that day. I had already won a stage in Paris–Corrèze my first year as a pro and then suddenly I am soloing to victory in the Vuelta.

Afterwards, I didn’t really feel more pressure from the media or the team, but I think I put pressure on myself to win another great race like that. But I found out in the years that followed that it is not always so easy. I had won a lot of races as an amateur and then I won right away as a pro so I just thought that is the way it was. But you learn that everybody wants to win and racing with the pros we just race at such a high level and, well, you can’t win every day. You learn how hard it is. It forces you to keep your feet on the ground. I came close to winning another stage in the Vuelta last year. Again, I was in a big breakaway and stayed near the front. But in the end Robert Gesink was stronger that day and beat me at the line. So since that victory I learned that you really have to stay humble and work hard. That’s all there is to it.

Elissonde first attracted attention with his stunning solo victory on the Angliru on the penultimate stage of the 2013 Vuelta as only a second-year pro. (photo: Sunada)

PELOTON: Well you are still only 26 so there will still be plenty of opportunities…. Incidentally, what would you have done if you hadn’t become a pro bike rider?

Elissonde: Oh, good question. Well, I would like to have done something in art—I love looking at it and discovering it. Just this weekend we drove up to Arles in search of some of the places that Van Gogh frequented. And I grew up outside of Paris, where there are just so many things to see. I don’t have a favorite artist, but I get really interested in a period and learn about it. I find the Surrealists fascinating and really love Dali and Magritte. And I like Cubism too. It’s really the different periods that fascinate me most. And although my career path took me into cycling at an early age, I love studying the history of my sport too! I guess I like history.

PELOTON: This year was a big year for you as you left FDJ and signed with Team Sky. They have had very few French riders. Was it a big change?

Well, I had spoken with [Sky team manager] Dave Brailsford a couple of times over the years but then we spoke more seriously during the 2016 Vuelta. I just felt like it would be a great opportunity. And it has certainly been that. It is always important to discover new things in life and joining Sky gave me a chance to approach cycling differently. I had five great years at FDJ but after five years I was looking for new perspectives and I found it here. It’s been a great experience.

PELOTON: I visited with FDJ last year and several staff members explained how they had become more and more specialized in recent years, because Sky had just put the bar so high when it came to team organization. Did you still see a big difference moving to Sky or were the differences more cultural?

Elissonde: Well, it is true that all top teams have really pushed their organization. But I have to say the organization here at Sky is really impressive. Everybody is just so concentrated on what they do here. There is just a huge infrastructure and it really contributes to the team’s performance. It is just part of the team’s make-up. It is true that the other teams have really closed the gap. But they are very aware that the other teams are catching up. The differences in team organization just aren’t so big anymore. But that pushes the team here to keep searching for ways to improve and innovate.

In terms of the culture, it is also more with the staff where we feel it. I mean, I can be in a race with no British riders. But you sense it more within the staff. You feel that British track culture for example. More than anything, though, the team is firstly very cosmopolitan. We come from all over the world, which is a big change coming from a French team that is mostly French. And it has been good for my English. That was one of the things that attracted me. It was inconceivable for me to join a team and not make an effort to speak their language. That’s been a lot of fun!

Elissonde has embraced the challenges on his new Sky Team and loves the cosmopolitan spirit. (photo: Sunada)

PELOTON: You moved down to Nice where a lot of Sky riders are based, not least of all Chris Froome. Do you guys ride together much?

Elissonde: Yeah, there are 11 or 12 of us down here between Nice and Monaco and we have a service course set up down here so, yeah, we all ride together a lot.

What’s it like training with Froome. What impresses you most?

Elissonde: Well, in Nice, a lot of our rides are in between races or when we are doing big miles early in the season. When he really impresses me is when we are in training camps. It is just so impressive the workloads that he can sustain.

PELOTON: You’ve done the Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia. But you have yet to do the Tour, which of course is the dream of any French rider. Is riding support for Froome a possibility in the near future?

Elissonde: Oh, I don’t know. To ride the Tour with Froomie, you really have to have experience riding for a big leader in a grand tour and I am not sure I am there yet. I went to the Giro this last year to ride support for Geraint Thomas, but a poorly parked moto destroyed our chances. I crashed with “G” and then crashed a few days later and eventually had to abandon, so I can’t really say that I got the experience I was looking for there.

Obviously, it is my dream to ride the Tour de France. But first I need more experience riding support within the team. It is not a gift for anyone to ride the Tour if you are not ready for it. Every move is so scrutinized. There is just so much pressure. And that will be even more true next year with only eight riders per team. So, yeah, I hope to do the Tour one day. But I have to be realistic and I don’t want to ride the Tour de France with a team like Sky if I am not ready for it. So we’ll see.