Stefan Küng is getting closer, but that only makes the near misses sting a little more. At Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, he was one of the main drivers of the race-defining break of eight, but his day still finished in frustration. While Christophe Laporte picked off yet another bouquet for Jumbo-Visma in Waregem, Küng was swept up by the chasing bunch and left with nothing to show for his afternoon’s work.
As he made his way through the mixed zone afterwards, Küng had the look of a man who wanted to be left alone with his annoyance, but his natural affability meant that he stopped to talk reporters through his race all the same. In truth, there was little to say. He was generous with his efforts in the break, others less so, but ultimately, Jumbo-Visma’s might was again unanswerable.
“It was full gas racing, attacks and attacks,” Küng said. “But in the end, not everybody was collaborating 100%. It’s a shame to be caught with 1k to go, but I just didn’t have the legs to follow Christophe. Now it’s time to recover and we’ll be ready for the Ronde.”
The Groupama-FDJ rider had already endured frustration of a different kind at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, a race he had specifically earmarked due to a flat finale that plays to his gifts as a rouleur. The frigid, sodden conditions, however, affected Küng in ways he didn’t anticipate. He felt he had the legs to follow the best on the second ascent of the Kemmelberg, but he never got to test himself against Wout van Aert.
“I don’t really have an explanation, but I lost the feeling in my fingers and my hands,” Küng told Cyclingnews this week.
“They were completely numb and when I was at the bottom of the second Kemmel, I wanted to shift, and I must have pushed the wrong button because I really had no feelings anymore. I was just on the 11, standing still there. I never felt this extreme before.
“But I mean, the human body is not a machine. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I really did everything well, I did everything properly, I changed the gloves several times, I ate and drank as I should. But if it just doesn’t work, sometimes there are just days like this.”
At 29 years of age, Küng has finally reached a point in his career where he can be confident that there will be more good days than bad on the cobbles. Since his amateur days, he has been earmarked as a Classics contender in waiting, but it took time for him to begin translating his time trial power consistently onto the cobbles.
Küng’s move from BMC to Groupama-FDJ in 2019 was a turning point, while last Spring, when he placed third at Paris-Roubaix and E3 and fifth at the Tour of Flanders, marked the definitive breakthrough.
“You don’t question yourself about whether you’re going to be up there anymore, because you know you’re going to be up there now,” Küng said. “But you always want more. Last year, I was on the podium twice, in Harelbeke and Roubaix, so I’m trying to aim for more this year.
“It’s nice to be up there in these races, because they’re really hard races, no excuses. And it’s nice to be up there in this team, too.”
Küng is not the only Groupama-FDJ rider to catch the eye over the past two Springs. A year ago, Valentin Madouas placed a surprising third at the Tour of Flanders, and he has raced with assurance in recent weeks, taking second at Strade Bianche. “In terms of all-round ability, he’s not far off being one of the best in the world,” Thibaut Pinot told L’Équipe this week, adding that he reckoned Madouas would one day be world champion.
For now, Madouas finds himself alongside Küng in the tier of contenders below the three outstanding favourites for the Ronde. At the E3 Saxo Classic last week, the Groupama-FDJ pairing combined well in the chasing group, with Küng claiming 6th in Harelbeke while Madouas helped himself to 8th.
The Big Three of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar were, however, on a different plain in that dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders. Can Küng and Madouas realistically hope to come out on top against that trio at the Ronde?
“I think Flanders is a different race, it’s quite a bit harder in the sense that the finale lasts over 100km,” Küng said. “Right now, it’s hard to say, because if they just go on the Koppenberg, then it becomes physical, and it’s a case of whoever can follow, follows.
“But we have several cards for sure, and this is what makes it good for us. We’re a good team but we’re not the big favourite, so we have to take advantage by maybe anticipating and so on, instead of looking at the others. That way we’re up there when they charge from behind.”
Küng’s performances on the cobbles in recent years have earned him the ultimate accolade afforded to a visiting challenger in these parts: a Belgian supporters’ club. The unmistakable King Küng Freunde – and their simple but catchy songbook – will be out in force again on Sunday to cheer their man around the Flemish Ardennes.
These days, the steep hellingen of Flanders are increasingly to Küng’s liking, as is the Monument distance. If anybody is going to upset the odds against Van Aert et al on Sunday, it might be him. And whatever the result, the true centrepiece of his Spring – and the race best suited to his qualities – is still to come.
“Paris-Roubaix is still my favourite race, I’m really looking forward to it already,” Küng said. “But first we have the Tour of Flanders, so we’ll give it our all.”