There is little arguing that the team clad in yellow and black are at the forefront of most people’s minds when thinking of who will dominate the one-day Classics. It only takes a glance over recent history to see why: Jumbo-Visma has won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne already this season, not to mention finishing on the podium in both Milan-Sanremo and Strade Bianche.
The team’s performance at E3 Saxo Bank Classic last year was perhaps one of their most impressive ever. In that race, Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte finished first and second, crossing the line arm-in-arm over one minute ahead of the rest of the peloton. They will both be back this year for the 2023 edition of E3 Saxo Classic which takes place in a few days time, hoping for a repeat performance. They come with a superbly strong line-up including the likes of Tiesj Benoot and Dylan van Baarle.
Is all hope lost for their competitors? Is there anything anyone can do to stop Jumbo-Visma?
“I think Stefan [Küng] and Valentin [Madouas] are both pretty confident in what they can do. I'm pretty confident in them, too,” Lewis Askey of Groupama FDJ says. “I don’t think they’re massively scared of Jumbo or anything like that. In terms of the levels of nutrition, research development and everything else around the bike, we’re catching up to the other teams.”
Askey himself has been part of the Groupama-FDJ set-up since 2020, riding first for their Continental team before being moved up to the WorldTour squad in 2022. In that time, the 21-year-old rider has impressed with consistently strong results, including a second place finish in Classic Loire Atlantique last year, and a fifth place in semi-classic Nokere-Koerse a few weeks ago.
The British rider explains that he’s seen a shift in the team’s culture even in the three seasons he has spent as part of the outfit. “It's changing with the riders that are coming in, we're dictating more the plans and ideas for the racing. With Stefan [Küng] and the time trial stuff getting more professional, that comes with the riders changing how the team is working.”
In his junior years, Askey – a winner of Paris-Roubaix Juniors – was part of the British Cycling development programme and he gives this period of his career credit for teaching him methods on race day that he has carried with him into the professional ranks.
“Something I massively pushed for last year was to have a debrief after the races. It was something that we didn't do before, and I really saw that it was a massive hole and where we could get better just from talking to each other,” Askey explains. “That's something that we’ve actually put into place now as an obligatory thing after races.”
“Especially for the younger guys coming in, like if I went to a race with Thibaut [Pinot] for example, and he did something stupid that annoyed the hell out of me, I would feel like it's not my place to say it randomly and rip into him. I’m a first year pro and this guy has got all this experience. But when you've got that opportunity in the debrief, it doesn't come across as big headed, it's for the greater good of the team.”
Still, Askey is quick to note that he understands that he has to hold a high level of respect for riders like Pinot and Küng who have such a wealth of experience in the professional peloton.
“You've got to give respect to them just purely based on what they've done. If someone's coming in and just not listening to anything being said, that will be frowned upon and talked about, but just because it's Thibaut, it doesn't make a difference to how I'm speaking to him, or what I'd be willing to say or not say,” Askey explains.
It’s true that Groupama-FDJ has a real mix of riders both new to the professional ranks and those who have been stalwarts of the peloton for years. This is largely due to the number of young riders who graduate from Equipe continentale Groupama-FDJ (the Continental squad) to the WorldTour team. Groupama-FDJ has a conveyor belt of fresh talent entering its ranks, making the Continental team an attractive proposition to young riders like Askey when they graduate from the junior ranks.“Before I signed, they flew me out to see the service course and speak to the staff and see what their ideas were for me and for the future. It wasn't like they weren't forcing me into anything, they were giving me a vision,” Askey explains.
“Since then, you've seen a lot of people go from the Conti to the WorldTour and you've got glowing reports from the riders that have been there, so it has become probably the best development team around. When you see that progression, it's pretty obvious that you're going to get more and more guys that are wanting to get into the team.”
Askey believes that being on the Groupama-FDJ Continental squad with teammates of a similar age and then moving up with them to the WorldTour team means they develop a strong friendship and bond.
“When it comes to the younger guys on the team, it’s like I'm doing this with my best mates. We all like to ride similarly, we all like to ride aggressively. A lot of the French teams before just liked to let the race unfold and see if they can put themselves in a move if a move goes, whereas we kind of ride the opposite," Askey explains.
"We like to make the race happen, we're not really scared to do that. There’s nothing more demotivating for me than going into a race and then maybe I've got an idea to split up in the crosswind or something like that and the riders don't want to follow your wheel to split it up. They want to wait until something else happens. For me that is just not why I ride a bike. So to have these guys that do want to ride like that, it's just more motivating and fun.”
While he enjoys going for his own results in races, looking ahead to WorldTour events like E3 Saxo Bank Classic this Friday, Askey understands he will be in a support role for the likes of Küng and Madouas.
“I do believe they can win and I’m fully happy to put myself in a position to help them, because they’ve got the best chance at victory,” Askey says.
When it comes to battling with teams like Jumbo-Visma who have a better track record in the Classics so far, Askey argues that it will come down to strength on the day and that the race’s history doesn’t predetermine how it will go in 2023.
“At the end of the day. It's still a bike race at the basic level,” Askey says. “If they've got the legs, which I'm pretty sure they have, then if we do our job and get ourselves in the right place at the critical moments, there's only so much that Jumbo can do. It comes down to who is the strongest.”