Visiting the Valters: At home with Hungarian cycling royalty
Rave music, Buddha and a 27-time national champion dad: this is the story of the Giro d'Attila.
Rave music, Buddha and a 27-time national champion dad: this is the story of the Giro d'Attila.
I arrive at Attila Valter’s family home on the outskirts of Budapest and immediately cause disappointment.
“We’re not going cycling?”
Tibor Valter, Attila’s father, and family friend Zsolt Juhasz, are standing in the doorway, in full Cube Csömör kit, the local team Tibor started around the turn of the millennium. I am standing there in jeans.
Previously, the idea of renting a bike to journey out to Csömör (pronounced chuh-mor) had been mentioned. It seemed a fitting means of getting to the childhood home of Hungary’s most famous pro cyclist, the rider with the biggest crowds in Budapest. But that was eventually discarded when it emerged a taxi would only cost €15.
Speeding out of Budapest, the city falls away and is replaced by fields, before the hills rise up to the north, in the direction of Visegrád. After nearly half an hour civilisation returns, a series of red-topped houses signifying we have arrived in sleepy Csömör. People tend to their gardens behind ring fences. Dogs rush out to bark at strangers they aren’t accustomed to seeing.
A blur of blue flashes past on the road leading up to the home Attila grew up in. It later turns out this was Zsolt, who then has to rush back home to change into regular clothes when it becomes clear the bike ride isn’t going to happen.
Tibor also changes hurriedly, and so the opportunity presents itself to cheekily sneak a peek past the hallway. A bottle of Giro podium champagne sits below the television in the living room. With Tibor and Zsolt now both wearing civvies, we hop into the minibus the Giro d’Italia has provided so Tibor can transport his family and friends around the home roads where the 2022 Grande Partenza is taking place.
On the front passenger’s seat are two umbrellas that Tibor throws into the back. He originally put them in the van, he says, to make sure it doesn’t rain this weekend. Tibor speaks very limited English so Zsolt has accompanied us as a translator, and to provide another frame of reference as someone who has known Attila since he was a child.
On the drive, Tibor natters away on the phone to the Hungarian national coach about Attila’s progress and future. This is a contract year for Attila, and his son’s stock is only on an upward trend. In between blasts of conversation, Tibor sits quietly, a smile permanently beaming from his face. Everything, it seems, has come together perfectly after half a century of life.
If there is one thing you wouldn’t know about Tibor Valter just from looking at him – a kind-faced middle-aged man – it’s that he’s been the national cycling champion of Hungary a grand total of 27 times across various disciplines. Twenty. Seven. Times.
Tibor started his cycling career at the age of 10 when he was given a bike at the national cycling centre in Budapest. As he progressed, his father relented in pushing Tibor to follow a career path as a car mechanic. Instead Tibor secured a professional cycling contract, racing nationally and internationally until the age of 30.
In the late 1990s, as his racing days wound down, Tibor had already been preparing for the future. He’d gained a qualification in coaching, the home he’d had built in Csömör was completed, and he’d started a family to put inside of it, with Attila born in 1998. A year later he created a cycling club in Csömör to improve and continue building the cycling culture within Hungary. An emphasis was soon placed on mountain biking as that discipline grew in popularity, and as the roads filled up with cars.
Zsolt is translating this story sat at a café at an intersection half an hour to the east of Csömör. The establishment belongs to the brother of Attila’s strength coach. “We go here for coffee and … errr … sweets, how you say?” Zsolt says. Inside are numerous pristine cakes kept behind a counter while the coffee is served in thick transparent glass mugs.
This is Attila’s go-to place to stop on a ride. Before last year’s Italian Grand Tour, most cyclists he passed on the road would know who he was, decked out in his Groupama-FDJ kit, but since taking the maglia rosa everyone comes up to him when he arrives for a coffee during a training ride.
On the road from the café back to the Valter family home, speed-calming measures have been put in place. It’s a benefit felt by all cyclists, but one that wouldn’t have existed without Attila’s celebrity. This is just one of a series of unimaginable events that have taken place since Tibor started the bike club 23 years ago.
“So, where did it all start with Attila and cycling?”
Zsolt pauses before turning to Tibor, asking the question in their native tongue, before Zsolt turns back, repeating most of the answer immediately in perfect English, save a couple of words, which he types into a translator app on his phone.
The Csömör cycling club was operated out of Tibor’s house, so as Attila grew up it was an everyday occurrence to have bikes and men in cycling kit around all the time. Attila would see how cyclists turned up for training every day, how they acted and carried themselves. For him, it was something completely normal. “Attila was this big,” Zsolt holds his hand at knee height. “He saw what we did. I never imagined he would reach this level.”
Attila had always ridden a bike, but at the age of 10 he started to train. He then began to race regularly, his career blossoming concurrently with the number of mountain bike and road races in the country. The perfect storm.
The first time Tibor thought his son had the makings of a pro rider was at the European mountain bike championships, either in the U15 or U17 category, when Attila recorded a second-place finish which helped the team (it was a team race) to third place out of 30 countries. Following an international result like this, he went to a race in Luxembourg and finished fifth ahead of a certain Tadej Pogačar in seventh.
Zsolt’s phone rings, interrupting the story. I turn to Tibor after hearing about Valter beating Pogačar and he nods vigorously at the anecdote with a huge grin on his face.
Then came a chance to race the revamped Tour de Hongrie after half a decade spent missing from the calendar. Attila was entered as part of a team that was racing just for the hell of it. They had a whale of a time amongst a field that contained, once again, a young(er) Pogačar racing for a Slovenian Continental team.
Attila held both a mountain bike and road racing licence until it became clear his talent was on tarmac. “He then finished third behind Julian Alaphilippe at a stage race in the Tour of Slovakia,” Tibor says. “That was the next step.”
An upward trend in the quantity and quality of national races came at a time when Hungarian talent was starting to sprout. It all led to the lofty heights of a Grand Tour start.
“The Tour de Hongrie organisers were very ambitious,” Zsolt says. “They wanted the Tour de France but everyone wants the Tour de France, so they thought getting the Giro would be easier. And they were right. They will [eventually] try and get the Tour here.
“It’s half about money and half is the reason why,” he continues, on the subject of how the race has arrived in his country. “We can show Hungary to Europe, the world. The Tour de Hongrie organisers were the people who went after it, and they have a good relationship with Attila. We have good riders and we want to show the world we have good riders. We can make him be a star.”
That certainly has happened. In the 2021 Giro, Valter capitalised on his presence in the breakaway on stage 4 where he gained roughly a minute on most of the overall contenders. With a strong effort on the mountainous stage 6, Valter finished just behind the GC riders; enough to capture the pink jersey.
In 2022, Valter has been at the forefront of the Grande Partenza. The fact the 23-year-old wore the pink jersey last year ahead of the delayed Budapest start only increased the attention given to the Groupama-FDJ rider. “ATTI! ATTI! ATTI!” the crowd chanted at the team presentation. Home fans swarmed him holding Hungarian flags and pens with which to sign any and all objects.
As his son was experiencing a career-changing moment at last year’s Giro, Tibor was in a car in the middle of the concurrently running Tour de Hongrie, watching the Giro on his phone. As they approached the finish, race organisers switched the footage on the big screen from their own race to the Giro, in order to see their home rider’s achievement.
Remembering that day, a Belgian journalist asks Attila whether he knew that Belgian television announced Remco Evenepoel as the new wearer of the maglia rosa. The Quick-Step rider was in fact second overall, 11 seconds behind the Hungarian.
“We were speaking about it today, [teammate] Ramon Sinkeldam said even in the Netherlands they thought Remco had taken it,” Valter said. “I also saw that many people were going to him at the top of the climb but I was 101% sure I had it. I knew how many seconds I had over him and I saw him ahead of me and was counting the seconds until I got to the finish.
“I was sure. I said to the soigneur that I had the maglia rosa and he didn’t believe me. He told me not to stress about it too much as he saw people were going to the other rider, but I was saying I’m not stressing because I am sure.
“It’s weird to say, but it’s nice that I was the underdog and everyone was surprised [I’d got it] but I was not surprised, I was the only one who knew it. It was a nice feeling.”
Attila’s family, friends and coach all remark that, like his father, not much seems to faze him. There is an unflappability and a desire to win no matter the competition or competitors. “Maybe you took the wrong roads,” he replies to a Dutch journalist who asks where all the cyclists are in Budapest, because to a Dutchman, no other country’s quantity of riders will ever compare to theirs.
The young rider says the pressure exerted on him in Hungary has been immense, likening it to how he imagines Olympic stars feel if they fail to claim an expected gold medal. However, rather than let this drag him down, he sees it as the next step in his career. If he can still compete while dealing with this expectation then he can truly say he’s arrived in the professional ranks.
There was a drought of cycling talent in between the generations of Valters, but after the different cycling federations combined and began operating more as a business, growth followed.
What Hungary needs now is a consistent Continental team, in the fashion of Norway’s Uno-X, Tibor believes, but the problem is riders of Attila’s stature won’t last long before being sucked up the pyramid to the top level – which isn’t ideal for getting sponsors on board. Likewise, there are dreams to progress the Tour of Hungary. “The Tour de Hongrie is 2.1; we need to try and get it to the place where it can be a ProSeries,” Tibor says. “Attila will help.”
As the conversation continues, a child passes by on a mountain bike wearing a Cube Csömör jersey and Groupama-FDJ shorts. Attila fever is in full effect.
“In Calpe people also knew him,” Zsolt says of Attila when his friend was at a training camp, “which was a first.
“He’s getting to that level you just need some rest and he’s been advised to move to Andorra or Monaco, not just for the tax,” Zsolt laughs. Valter currently lives in Budapest with his girlfriend. “But it’s normal to be a cyclist there; a lot of successful cyclists live there. It’s more relaxed.”
Soon, Attila’s strength and conditioning coach Mark Csielka also arrives – the brother of the café’s proprietor. With the whole cast now assembled I ask for some personal anecdotes of Hungary’s most prominent rider.
They think for a while, what is Attila into? It’s like asking you to describe members of your own family, somehow picking through a lifetime of stories for the perfect one that sums them up.
“When he’s in his car,” Csielka begins, “he always takes the volume as high as it can go. He likes electronic music, but with lots of bass? I don’t know how you say it.”
“Rave music!” Zsolt adds. “He likes rave music.”
Where did that interest come from?
Tibor half understands what we’re talking about and leans in to inform Zsolt.
“Ah, so we were at the Mountain Bike World Cup in Germany and Attila was just a kid and came along for fun, to see it. Our coach showed us electronic music, and that was the point when Attila fell in love with electronic music.”
Suddenly, the facade of the super-serious bike racer who simply trains and races has given way.
“He plays PS5,” Zsolt continues. “All of the games. He likes to read comments on Facebook, this is his free time.” Zsolt motions scrolling on a phone, laughing.
“He likes to go out with his friend Viktor Filutás for thermal spas almost every week when he’s home. And, of course, he comes here for a coffee and biscuit.”
“For his birthday he went to a Buddhist temple with his girlfriend, to meditate,” Csieka remembers. “After that day Attila says he’s empty and full of happiness, like Buddha. So I think he’s interested in meditation.”
Soon, our time is up. I make to book a taxi to take me to the car hire place by the airport ahead of following the first three stages but Tibor shakes his head. It’s only 15 minutes further up the road, and anyway, he’s used to making the trip on average three times a week, ferrying Attila back and forth as he builds his burgeoning professional career.
The last words we’ll leave to Attila, who said this when asked about the influence of his father on him as a person and a bike rider.
“I always say – for example when I had the maglia rosa – I always phrase my sentences as ‘we’ got the maglia rosa when I speak to him, I never use ‘I’. This is how much he means to me. We still do all of our rides together.” (Tibor uses an e-bike.)
“Just this Tuesday we went for our last ride together before I left home for the team hotel, our last café ride together,” Attila says. “We’ve spoken a lot this week. If I’m stressed or anything I ask him, or about tactics I ask him as he knows me the best. As well as my dad he’s also my friend. It’s nice to have a father like this.”