Peter Sagan and Rafal Majka have earned most of the headlines after moving to Bora-hansgrohe, but if things go to plan for Leopold König, he could end 2017 with some of the team’s best results.
The 29 year old Czech rider was previously part of the squad between 2011 and 2014, competing under the Team NetApp-Endura colours. He then moved to Team Sky and spent two years there, helping riders such as Chris Froome to success but also learning much and gaining strength.
Now back working with Bora-hansgrohe chief Ralph Denk and his squad, König has big aims for 2017, including leading the team in the Giro d’Italia.
“Well, when we take the whole picture, it’s definitely simple…it is a podium in a Grand Tour,” König told CyclingTips, laying out his goals for three-week races.
“I feel like I’m improving every single year…with age, I am still getting better. The last step was this year’s Vuelta where I really had a feeling that I can be up there with the best ones.
“I can be up there in the time trials, I can be up there on the climbs. So definitely the dream and the goal is to be on the podium.”
König first showed Grand Tour promise back in 2013 when he won a stage and finished ninth overall in the Vuelta a España. The following year he built on that result, putting in a very solid second half of the race to net seventh overall in the Tour de France.
He could have continued that upward progression in the race by continuing to ride for himself but instead he accepted an offer to join Team Sky. The squad has the highest budget in pro cycling and likely paid well for his services; however, another factor was to learn from the team and thus continue his evolution for the future.
In 2015 König was set to back the team’s two leaders in the first two Grand Tours on the calendar. He started the Giro d’Italia riding backup for Richie Porte. However the Australian suffered bad luck and, after a crash on stage 13, withdrew before the end.
König was able to play his own card and improved to a fine sixth overall in Milan. He then started the Tour de France intent on backing Chris Froome. While he was not at his best due to fatigue from the Giro, he helped the Briton to his second overall win in the race.
In 2016 he missed both the Giro and the Tour, concentrating on the Vuelta a España as his sole Grand Tour of the year.
Although he ultimately finished back in 29th place overall, he had been sitting comfortably in the top ten overall right until stage 15. He started that day fifth in GC, but then unravelled on the road to Sallent de Gállego/ Aramon Formigal.
That was the stage where riders such as Alberto Contador (Team Tinkoff) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) launched a surprise attack on Froome, had Sky on the ropes for the whole day and ultimately cost Froome his chance of winning the event.
König did what he could to help his leader but cracked and finished back in 163rd place. That saw him plummet from fifth to 31st overall.
“The Vuelta could have been my best result with Team Sky but, with how it turned out, you can see how one bad can ruin your whole three week effort,” he states, looking back.
The subtext is clear: he hasn’t yet fully shown what his potential is. 2017 will be all about proving what he can do.
Sharing the Team Sky knowledge
Heading back to Bora-hansgrohe has, according to König, been a very easy transition.
“Two years ago, when I went to Sky, I thought it was feeling familial. I was feeling really good back then. Now this is different. It’s like really coming back home. I know it’s sounds like a phrase or whatever but it’s really true. Even thought I don’t know so many people here anymore because the team changed a lot, I feel the mentality stayed the same. It is just even more familial than Sky.
“I thought with Sky, for that kind of team, for the most successful team in the world for the past five years, it was something special. But here is also nice. It really feels like a family.”
Asked what where the most important lessons he had learned with Team Sky, he said there were too many to count.
“We could talk about that for half a day. There are so many areas…areas where you are just getting experiences every single day,” he said.
“It’s actually hard to take any particular one, to pick one thing. There are so many things going around that it’s like a never-ending process. I don’t know, maybe we can talk now about logistics or training or whatever.
“Of course in a team with almost an unlimited budget, it’s different. There are all those small things that make life easier. But that comes only with a big budget, which Team Sky has got.”
Having gone to Sky to learn and saying he picked up many things there, does he think that he can teach Bora-hansgrohe some of these things?
“Yes, sure,” he answers. “I think in the last seven or eight days, there wasn’t even one day when I didn’t tell anyone something I’ve learned. It is actually really nice that you can share this experience and you can help the team grow.
“It is really about the small details. It is really about having hand gels everywhere. Having antibacterial gel in every food room and every restaurant and in every reception. Those small things I’ve learned in Sky.”
Slotting in with Majka
König has moved on from Sky to have more opportunities, but he is not the only GC rider on the team. The most obvious of the others is Rafal Majka. The Pole has twice won the King of the Mountains classification in the Tour de France and has clocked up three stages.
He has also placed third in the Vuelta and fifth, sixth and seventh in the Giro d’Italia.
While he isn’t of the stature of Froome, a rider König had to yield to, the Czech rider could in theory feel that his own chances are threatened by having to share leadership with his new teammate.
However he insists he doesn’t see it that way.
“I think from my point of view, it’s a massive advantage to have two riders like that in the team because they can really share. They can share the Grand Tours. Even when it comes to a point where both of them are in the same race, they can even share the leadership. They can help each other.
“So in my eyes we have to sit and make things clear which Grand Tour is going to be best suited for everybody.”
As things stand, König will focus on the Giro d’Italia in 2017. Majka will miss the Italian race and target the Tour de France.
Is there a chance that the two of them could start the latter race on equal footing?
“I don’t think that we would we would go with two riders for leadership in the Tour,” he states. “I think there will be only one of us.
“I did those two races two years ago. I think that combo is the hardest one, actually. I can’t really see myself doing this again because mentally to be ready for both is really demanding.
“If I was going for the Giro, I would prefer to start the Vuelta rather than the Tour.”
First up, though, is his season debut and his build-up for the Giro. He will get things underway in the Challenge Mallorca races at the end of January, then compete in the Abu Dhabi Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
He’ll then line out in the Italian Grand Tour, gunning for a podium finish there.
Taking a top three GC finish would mark his biggest result to date and give him increased confidence for the future.
He’d then aim for a similarly strong ride in the Vuelta a España and, slightly longer-term, success in the Tour.
Riding strongly in the French race is something he is particularly psyched about.
“For sure it’s a future target,” he says. “That’s where I almost started my…well, not my career, but my real ability to perform in a three week race.”