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UCI Road World Championships 2018

Back on the Bike

Interview with Stefan Denifl

Text: Eva Schwienbacher, Picture: Stefan Voitl

After enjoying his most successful season so far in 2017, local pro rider Stefan Denifl has had a tough 2018. However, the man from the Stubai Valley knows only one way back – on the bike. We talked to the 30-year-old Tirolean about his motivation going into the 2018 UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck.

Stefan, last time we were here there was snow on the ground and you were training with a pair of touring skis on your feet. A lot has happened since then. You have struggled with your health this season and things haven’t gone according to plan. First you had problems with your knee, then you had to miss out on one of your personal highlights of the year, the Tour of Austria, due to a severe concussion. Now it has been announced that your team, Aqua Blue Sport, will cease to exist at the end of this season. How have you experienced the past few months? Stefan Denifl: From a sporting perspective the last few months haven’t been good. Since January there has always been something or other not quite right. After injuring my knee at the start of the season I didn’t start racing until the Tour of Norway in May. That was followed by the Tour de Suisse. I then wanted to concentrate on the Tour of Austria and I was feeling good, but then I crashed while training. I knew right away that it would be a race against time to be fit for the World Championships and that I was running out of races to show my form. After all, I have to qualify too – I don’t just get a place in the team because I am from Tirol. That means I really have to push hard and show what I can do in the next few races. Without wanting to shift the blame, I also have to say that the change of equipment this season caused a few problems and headaches.

In the end you were chosen as one of the nine riders nominated by the Austrian team in the road race. Six of those riders will definitely be on the start line. What was your reaction when you found out that you had been nominated? To be honest, I thought I would be in the team – even if I haven’t ridden that well this season. I am not somebody you can really leave out of the team that easily. I am the oldest rider and have the most racing experience. I know that this year we have a lot of really good racers in Austria. That wasn’t the case five or six years ago – back then there weren’t many riders who would have been able to ride such a tough race with so much climbing. That is a very positive development in Austrian cycling. This year we have nine riders who have all achieved good results. I am the only rider without any really good race results this season. That means it won’t be an easy decision for the federation when it comes to deciding who gets to race at the World Championships. 

“My main motivation this year is definitely the World Championships in my home region.” Stefan Denifl

In difficult time like those, what is it that gives you strength and motivation to pick yourself up again and keen going?My main motivation this year is definitely the World Championships in my home region. This season my team didn’t get invited to the Vuelta a España, so I wasn’t able to race there. The Tour de Suisse was the first highlight that motivated me this season. Then I was down to race the Tour of Austria but had to miss it due to injury. Now I’m looking forward to the World Championships in Tirol. I need little goals throughout the season to prepare for. That’s better than thinking too far ahead. The knee injury was tough for me, because that was an injury which I had already had three years before and I knew how much work it takes to get over it and back to where you were before.  I suddenly found myself in a situation I never wanted to be in again. But, even if it’s sometimes hard, for me there was only ever one goal: to get back on the bike. 

Were there never moments when you wanted to give up and just call it a day? No, not really. When I was injured in 2014 it was different, but last year was the most successful season of my career, so this year I feel less under pressure. I am now 30 years old – as you get older you learn to relax more. That’s why I just focused on getting back to full fitness and didn’t spend too much time thinking that my career could be over.

What would you say your form is like at the moment? That’s hard to say. During the Tour of Wallonia (stage race in Belgium from 28 July to 1 August) I was feeling good and managed to finish in the top 30. That was not an amazing result, but it was a solid performance. Then I went to the Tour du Limousin (French stage race from 15 to 18 August) with the aim of finishing in the top ten or winning a stage, yet my performance was average. I was expecting more – especially as I knew that I had to show what I can do. There is still a bit of time left to work on my form ahead of the World Championships , but with the pressure of having to qualify this year I really have to give everything. Two weeks before the World Championships the names of the six riders and two back-up riders will be announced. I hope the selectors can see that my form is getting better all the time. The fact that I have not raced that much this year also means I am fresh and not tired. Maybe that is an advantage. Something like that can make a big different at the World Championships, which always take place at the end of the season.

Stefan Denifl on the climb to Igls. After riding from Kufstein to Innsbruck, the riders in the Men Elite Road Race taking place on 30 September will complete the road race circuit up to Igls seven times.

How are you preparing for the up-coming World Championships? Riders who have already races a lot this season will be trying to maintain the form they have already built up, but for me it is different. I can’t really do anything wrong. I just need to train a lot, ride a lot of races and then, four to five days before the World Championships, start taking things a little easier. 

How many times have you ridden the World Championships road race course? I have probably ridden the whole course around twenty times. There are some sections – for example the climb to Igls – that I have ridden hundreds of times in training. I don’t ride up the super-steep final climb, the Höttinger Höll, in every training session. I know the World Championships course really well. There aren’t many riders who know it as well as I do. 

That must be an advantage ... Of course. A lot of bike racing is in your head, so it makes a big difference if you know every corner and every square metre of road. That takes a lot of the mental pressure off. The good riders have already been to Innsbruck to recon the course. As a bike racer you want to know what to expect at the World Championships. 

After suffering so many injuries recently, are you sometimes worried about crashing and hurting yourself again? Have you become more careful or cautious in your racing style? Not in training, but I have in the races. But, to be honest, you always have a certain respect and fear in races. We descend in groups of up to 130 riders at speeds touching 70km/h. If the road is narrow or is just a tarmac road through a field then you have to decide how many risks you want to take. If you want to be at the front of the race you have to risk a lot or find a compromise. You see riders who always risk a lot but often crash. I have learned in recent years to be a bit cleverer. If you are racing for the win, like last year at the Vuelta, you don’t have a choice. In those kinds of situations you have to take risks – otherwise you will never win a stage.

This year‘s Men Elite Road Race is considered to be particularly difficult. How as a rider do you have to approach the race if you want to make it to the finish or even win? Races at the World Championships are really tough mentally. They take between six and seven hours. You have to be fit and alert the whole time. I think every rider loses concentration at some point – that is normal in races which last so long. You just have to stay cool. At the World Championships in Florence in 2013 there was a phase of the race when I was at the back of the peloton. It’s important to not get nervous in those kinds of situations. Worrying costs you energy – and that is exactly the energy you will need at the end of the race.  In the Men Elite Road Race in Innsbruck I reckon there will be some riders who will break away on the third of the seven laps of the circuit up to Igls. In the end there will be 20 or 30 left who will climb the Höttinger Höll together. You have to pace yourself well. For example, some riders might let themselves drift to the back of the pack on the first few climbs to Igls and then make their way to the front again on the descent back to Innsbruck. There are a few things that you wouldn’t do in a normal race but which can help in a race as tough as the World Championships. 

If you are selected to ride the road race, what will your personal goal be? If I am feeling good then I might be able to finish in the top ten. That would be amazing. Apart from the result, the World Championships are a great opportunity to put yourself in the shop window and show what you can do – for example by attacking early or in the final metres. Of course all six of us will try to ride for the team captain. That’s no different in the teams from the big countries. It is also important to ride as a team to show the fans that you are riding together for Austria.

Do you think it will be particularly hard for the Austrian riders to maintain that discipline this year because the World Championships are taking place in Innsbruck-Tirol? Yes, I think so. Everyone has put so much into preparing for these World Championships. We also have a lot of good climbers who can perform well on a course like this. Everyone has their own personal goals, but at the end of the day it’s about doing the job you have within the team.

"At the end of the day it’s about doing the job you have within the team. Stefan Denifl

Who do you think are the strongest riders going up against the Austrian team? The Columbians – Columbia has world-class climbers. The Italians, who have a really strong captain in Vincenzo Nibali and a strong team who will ride for him. And the French with Julian Alaphilippe, who won two stages at this year‘s Tour de France and likes short, steep climbs. Then there is Great Britain with the twins Adam and Simon Yates. This course is perfect for riders like them. All in all there are around ten good climbers who could become world champion. And, last but not least, there is the triple world champion Peter Sagan. He’s not what you would call a typical climber, but he’s the kind of guy who tries the most impossible things. That said, it will be hard for him.

What do you think the highlights of the World Championships will be for the spectators? Lots of people have only seen cycling on TV and think that the races are boring, but I can only advise anyone who is not yet a fan of cycling to go along to a race and watch the action live. There is a really special atmosphere. You can get really close to the riders. I would watch the Individual Time Trial, the first major highlight of the World Championships, especially the climb from Terfens to Gnadenwald. That is going to be really exciting. The atmosphere at the finish in Innsbruck will also be rocking every day. And then there is the Men Elite Road Race, which I would definitely recommend. I would stand at the end of the climb in Igls, near the bobsleigh run, where the riders will be giving it everything and really suffering. The Höttinger Höll climb is also a highlight in its own right which is definitely worth seeing.

If I granted you one wish for the race on 30 September, what would it be? I would say good weather. Ideally the conditions should be dry. Personally I would also wish to have a really good day like last year at the Vuelta. If I am feeling good then the course will suit me. After all, anything can happen at the World Championships. A rider can suddenly put in a great performance and surprise everyone – especially if like me you are from Tirol and riding in front of a home crowd.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Biography:

Stefan Denifl from Fulpmes in the Stubai Valley rides for the Irish pro cycling team Aqua Blue Sport, which recently announced that it would stop racing at the end of the 2018 season. Denifl is a climber and in 2017 won the general classification of the Tour of Austria as well as a stage of the Vuelta a España. This season he has been plagued by injuries and forced to miss several races. Nevertheless, the man from Tirol is one to keep an eye on in the Men Elite Road Race on 30 September. He is one of nine riders who have been nominated for this race by the Austrian Cycling Federation. The names of the final six riders who will compete for Austria in this race will be announced on 16 September.

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