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Not too many bike racers use these words on their Facebook page: “To me, cycling is romance. The interplay of man and machine, where man can turn into a machine, has fascinated me ever since I was a little boy….” But that’s how Swiss prodigy Stefan Küng, 23, introduces himself. You may have seen his name mentioned in reports on the spring classics or the Giro d’Italia or the world track championships. And you may know that he won a team time trial gold medal with the BMC Racing squad at the 2015 road worlds in Richmond, Virginia. But who is this guy who has such a romantic image of our sport?
Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada
Küng is big for a bike racer: 1-meter-93 tall (6-foot-4) and 83 kilos (183 pounds). That powerful build helped him win the world individual pursuit title in 2015, beating world record holder Jack Bobridge in the process, and later becoming one of only four men who have dipped under the 4:15 barrier for the pursuit’s 4-kilometer distance. That’s how he began his pro career two years ago…and in the following two months he took his first pro road victory (the 198-kilometer Volta Limburg Classic in the Netherlands) and his first UCI WorldTour win (a stage of the Tour de Romandie)—both in long, solo breakaways on days of heavy rainfall.
He also competed in his first Paris–Roubaix, placing 63rd in the main peloton, and later started his first grand tour, the 2015 Giro. There, he did sterling support work for his BMC team leaders before crashing out of the race on stage 12 with a compressed vertebra. That injury put Küng out of racing for three months and so he finished just one more race, the Tour of Britain in September, before traveling to the Richmond worlds and helping his team win gold in the TTT.
After such a promising rookie year, Küng looked set to achieve great things in 2016; but he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr at BMC’s winter training camp and did not start his season until the spring classics. Even so, he finished in the main bunch at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and then placed 41st at Paris–Roubaix—one place behind compatriot Fabian Cancellara, the man that Küng has most often been compared with.
Despite having had less than a month of racing in his legs, the then 22-year-old started his second Giro. It opened with a 10-kilometer time trial at Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, a perfect distance for the former track pursuit racer. His team gave him its favored starting spot in the final 10 starters and he rocketed through the first half only one second behind the then fastest time set by home favorite Tom Dumoulin. Then, on a sharp turn, Küng crashed into the barriers and got a replacement bike, but lost about half a minute. Dumoulin won the stage with Küng exactly 30 seconds back in 34th place.
RELATED: Read about the 2017 Strade Bianche.
A week later, in the weather-affected Giro time-trial stage through the Chianti wine country, Küng coped well with the hilly 40-kilometer course despite riding on wet roads and came in seventh, only a half-minute behind fourth-place Cancellara. He finished the Giro in 60th place, and looked set for a strong second half of the season. But in his national time trial championship, won by Cancellara, he fell heavily on a tight turn and sustained a broken collarbone and iliac bone fracture. He was out of the sport for another three months. As in 2015, he again completed one stage race, the Eneco Tour, where he helped BMC win the TTT stage, before heading to the worlds in Dubai. This time he picked up a silver medal in the TTT.
Now in his third pro season and with Cancellara retired from racing, Küng has a chance to become the next big star in Switzerland. His year has started well—without injuries or illness. It began last month with solid finishes at the Tour of Valencia (helping BMC win the TTT stage) and Tour of Oman, followed by the early Belgian classics. As a team rider for Greg Van Avermaet, Küng placed 61st at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and 15th at Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne—just 11 seconds down on winner Peter Sagan. Then came last weekend’s Strade Bianche.
Competing in the challenging Italian classic for the first time, Küng did remarkably well. When the race split apart on the sixth section of gravel roads, with 100 kilometers still to race, he was the only BMC rider to stay with Van Avermaet in the 14-man move. Küng was then one of the workhorses in chasing down the day’s early breakaway, but as he wrote later on social media: “Stopped by a mechanical today…disappointing, as I was feeling great. After a bike change [I] still was able to come back to the first group and help Greg. But an amazing race….”
It was also amazing that on this ultra-hilly course, with 60 kilometers of gravel riding in the near-five-hour race, and despite all his hard work and solo chase, the big Swiss rider still managed to finish 15th. That result augers well for his return to the cobbled classics in April, when Paris–Roubaix will be his main target.
Four days after Strade Bianche, Küng was back in the saddle at the opening team time trial of Tirreno–Adriatico. BMC Racing put in a superb effort, winning the 22.7-kilometer stage at Lido di Camaiore in a time of 23:20—a course record of 58.371 kilometers per hour. Besides the team win, Küng was awarded the white jersey of Best Young Rider.
Afterward, befitting a man with a romantic bent, he rhapsodized about the victory: “I love time trialing,” he said, “and when you are going that fast, you have the impression that you are flying. When you hear the wheels roaring, it is just great. That’s what we train for, to go as fast as possible, and when you win in the end you know you did something right over the winter.”
Watch out for Küng in the spring classics!