Riders to Watch in 2023 – Reuben Thompson

cyclingmole Image Credit: Giro Valle d’Aosta

Reuben Thompson started 2022 already with a professional contract in the bag, thanks to a hugely successful 2021 where he achieved many good results including winning Giro Valle d’Aosta. 2022 was going to be his final year in the under 23 ranks, but he also knew that there would be the opportunity to ride for the “big” Groupama – FDJ team throughout the year, thanks to the UCI rule allowing devo riders the chance to ride for their pro team. The talented climber from New Zealand is one of the most exciting climbing talents currently coming through the ranks and he loves the punchy stuff too. 

“If I look at the graphs and compare my watts/kg-duration to the world’s best, my 3-5 minute numbers are actually my best values, so I know I have that punchy effort in me. Although I’ve grown up in an area with lots of long climbs and just really like that effort. I also seem to go better on long climbs in races especially when there are multiple climbs in a row. I’m still figuring lots out about myself at the top level and don’t necessarily know where my strengths are, but I’d definitely like to be strong with both in the future.”

Second place in Circuit des Ardennes was Reuben’s first notable result of the year, then it was off to the under 23 edition of Liège where he was riding in support of his teammates.

“We launched a crazy attack with 80km to go. It was Lenny (Martinez), Romain (Grégoire) and I along with Alex Baudin. Three guys of the team in a break of 4. I drove it as hard as I could for Romain but unfortunately the peloton was sent the wrong way behind us and took a shortcut eating into our time gap significantly. I remember having 1 minute 10 and then the next minute they were right behind us, and I thought it was over and we’d cooked ourselves. I was dropped on a climb running into the finish. When I crossed the line, I never would have guessed that Romain had reattacked and then won a sprint from 6 or so. Bloody unreal rider. It was super impressive.”

Groupama – FDJ are bloody impressive, their under 23 team experienced a year like no other, winning countless races. Due to this success the team have promoted eight riders to their professional squad for 2023, a move that’s never been seen before in the sport. It is a brilliant moment for the team, a vindication of the structure that they have put in place.

“I think it’s pretty epic. It’s a seriously talented group and we already know we click well together so hopefully we can build on that going forward. I think it also makes the transition feel quite smooth. For the time being the change into the world tour doesn’t feel like much of a change at all. I will continue working with my trainer from the past two years, Nico Boisson, and I already know almost all the staff in the world tour. Although I’m sure when we start racing, I’ll feel the change when I’m getting my arse handed to me…”

One of the reasons they won so much this year was having multiple riders in the front selection, it made it almost impossible for teams to beat them. This approach helped them to win Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux, Tour Alsace, Giro Valle d’Aosta, and Liège, all of them huge races in the under 23 calendar. Reuben won Giro Valle d’Aosta last year, but this year he had to settle for a stage win and second on GC behind his teammate, Lenny Martinez.

“Yeah, it’s pretty mental what we did. Enzo (Paleni) and Lorenzo (Germani) really rose to the occasion that week and Finlay (Pickering) did some of the mega turns that I knew he was capable of from seeing him in training, it made it pretty easy for Lenny and me, haha. All we had to do was follow the wheels and do our thing in the final. Two stage wins and 1st & 2nd on GC, pretty incredible.

I had great legs the day I won. The breakaway had 4 minutes with 75km to go of the 175km stage with 4,500m climbing. So, I’d asked Lorenzo to bring them back within reach so I could have a stab at the stage win. In one descent and the valley below, he brought the break back all on his own with no help from any other teams. Then Finlay hard paced before my attack. Lenny and I were the strongest and eventually got clear from the rest of the field and finished together. We had spoken about doing just that in the room together the night before. It was a pretty special day and quite possibly the only time I’ll ever do that in my career.”

Despite all their success, the team didn’t manage to win the Baby Giro. That week it was Leo Hayter dishing out the pain on way to a hugely dominant win, with Reuben finishing in 5th and his teammate Martinez in 3rd.

“From the first day I had every opportunity to ride my own GC. After stage 4 the pecking order was settled a little bit more and my role changed to trying to support either Lenny or Romain for the win. I fully sacrificed on stage 5 when we maybe took a little too much risk with a 100km raid from the start of the stage, but we needed a lot of time back on Leo and needed to try something from far out. Then on stage 6 I paced hard on the bottom of Fauniera to try and bring the gap down from Lennert (Van Eetvelt) ahead so Lenny could have a go at the stage win. I lost some big time after pacing and one spot on GC although 4th instead of 5th doesn’t change much and if I hadn’t paced, I couldn’t see myself taking a podium spot so I’m still content. The final day was pretty epic. The Giro had been somewhat of a failure up until that point, so we were really hungry for the stage win. Lorenzo did one of the most insane pulls I’ve seen to bring the break back and then I put Sam (Watson) and Romain in position and watched them fly away on the final punch. Was great to finish on a good note.”

As the season drew to a close there was still one more big race for Reuben, Ronde de l’Isard. This was going to be his final race in the under 23 category and he was determined to win, but it wasn’t to be, and he had to settle for another second place.

“All I cared about was the win. I self-funded a trip up to altitude in Andorra for three weeks to do everything I could to be in top shape and finish my time in U23’s on a high. I had a bit of a blip colliding with a car and having 2 days off the bike and 3 days super easy but was confident I could still get it done. It was really strange circumstances having only myself and Johannes (Staune-Mittet) in that fight for the win. He was either marking me or I was marking him. We’d have guys attack up the road and just look at each other like ‘well I don’t need to close that’, haha.

In the end the time I lost on the first two days was too much. I had to take quite big risks and attack from reasonably far out to try to overhaul the 1 minute 20 gap. I think if it was 20 seconds or so and I could have waited for the final couple of kms of the summit finishes it could have been different. But full credit to the Jumbo boys, they rode really well as a unit that week. Always calm and controlled, especially that final day. Gave us a bit of a taste of our own medicine.”

He might not have won as much as he would have liked but this season was still another good one, especially as he continued to learn.

“I think I’m a completely different rider to when I started with the conti team. Especially the improvement in positioning, racing with crosswinds and that more classics style stuff. Never missing a split this year and being able to help the guys on all terrain or race for myself when it goes up. My endurance has come along so much to the point where I think it’s my strength and the longer and harder a day is the better I go. 

This year I learned to be more relaxed. I used to stress a lot to be in position for a descent or before a climb and would take unnecessary risks to get to the front. Especially after my crash on a descent in Alpes Isere Tour, I’ve learnt to take my time a bit more and just calm down which has gotten me far since. Then the same goes as a person, trying to relax a bit more off the bike. Eat an extra bit of bread or dessert that I might not have before. Trying to make it all sustainable so that I can enjoy a long career.”

What would a good 2023 look like for Reuben?

Bloody good question. I don’t have any real expectations in terms of results just yet. A big goal for me is to get a grand tour in the legs. Although I don’t want to ever be just getting around races. If I’m racing, I would like to have an impact. I think I’d be pretty chuffed if I just achieved that for starters. Being at the pointy end of races and making an impact, then continuing to build from there. For now, I know that I will start in the Tour Down Under.”

Reuben has made a lot of sacrifices to get to this point, including moving halfway around the world, away from friends and family at a young age. Was it worth it?

“I think so. I definitely miss my mates and family in NZ and really enjoy my time back home where I can let loose and act the goat, but I think it’s definitely worth it. For the moment I get to travel the world racing my bike. It’s the dream if you ask me.”

I can’t wait to see Reuben embark on the next stage of his career, I’m expecting big things.