Climber extraordinaire: Q&A with Kenny Elissonde

The French super-domestique talks about his career, his passion for art, and his favorite foods - just don't forget the fries!

Kenny Elissonde is in his ninth season as a professional, but his first with Trek-Segafredo. He took the biggest win of his career in his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, on the infamous Angliru. Since then, the Frenchman has blossomed into a top climbing domestique, a vital support figure, notably in the high mountains.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and put the season on-hold, he showed his top domestique duties in the Santos Tour Down Under where he helped Richie Porte win the overall, and in Paris-Nice, riding for Vincenzo Nibali.

Recently, we sat down with Kenny to get to know him a bit better.

What was your introduction to the world of cycling?

It’s pretty simple, I saw a race coming close to my house, and I watched it. I said to myself, ‘why not try it?’ and I started on a mountain bike, and then I went onto the road, and I kind of liked it. It was just an amateur race, and I gave it a try to see what it’s about. I was seven or eight years old, and I’ve been racing ever since then.

As one of the smaller guys in the peloton, did you ever find it difficult in the Junior ranks?

No, it was okay, actually. In this category, when you’re pretty good, you’re good everywhere. When I was growing up, there were not so many big climbs in the races, but when you’re young, a bridge is enough to make a selection. It’s completely different. I even won some time trials in Under-23 – when you have that level in amateur, you can really enjoy it. It’s a completely different sport.

It seems as if there are fewer pure climbers such as yourself compared to several years ago, would you agree?

Now you see more of the bigger guys who try to lose weight and be climbers, climbing like a time trial actually as we did in my former team. Obviously, they know how to pace, and the big guys have teammates to help set a pace for them. But there is still a lot of space for the pure climbers to attack, to enjoy. You can see this with Richie if he’s in good shape like he was in the Tour Down Under: if he attacks, he can still make some difference in a 3km climb, and it’s not even really steep. So, there are still options, but you have to be really good.

In your first year as a professional, you won on the infamous Angliru at the Vuelta – do you prefer these super steep climbs?

Actually no, I prefer about a 7-8% gradient. When it’s too steep, like short and steep at País Vasco, for example, it’s not my cup of tea. I like the long climbs when it’s hard the whole day with a lot of climbing.

What’s the most challenging thing about being a lightweight rider?

Crosswinds. Obviously, these aren’t my cup of tea, kind of like sprinters in the mountains. So, yeah crosswinds, and also sprints, aren’t my favorite thing.

You’re one of our new riders for 2020 – what does moving to a new team change for you? 

It’s a different group of people and a different way of working. Each team has their own way of working, its own culture, so really you change everything. Also, obviously, the bike is different, so that’s a big change. You just have to assimilate everything, be a little quiet, and take time to learn how people are and how the team is working. You’re a part of the team, but you still need some time to really settle in, so I’m still in that process. Spending one month on the road like in Australia helped, of course, but since March we have all been apart.

Does a change of scenery bring fresh motivation for you?

I wouldn’t say it’s motivating because I am already motivated, but it is refreshing, and obviously, you can learn a lot by being around new people and a new way of working. Each person you meet has their own background and experiences; when you meet a new group of 60 or 70 new people, you will learn a lot on the bike and off the bike.

What are you hoping to achieve this year?

I want to be more decisive in the mountains for the leaders and help the team to win some big races together. Also, I want to be 100% part of the team and to make new friends and really reflect on this team to feel like now it’s ‘my team’. I want to enjoy more successful moments like we’ve had at the start of the year.

I think personal ambitions will come on the road. Mainly I’m here to help my leaders, but you never know what can happen on the road. I don’t wake up every morning saying I want to win this; I wake up trying to be my best and to be in a position to help my leaders. But occasionally you can have a day with more freedom with the chance to win.

Outside of cycling, how would you describe yourself?

I’m maybe a bit quiet, but also sometimes I would say I’m not quiet at all! I need to be in my comfort zone with people first, but then when I am… (laughs)

I am quite relaxed; I think it’s important to be relaxed in the crazy world of cycling. You already spend a lot of energy on the bike so if you also spend a lot of energy off the bike then it makes your life too hard. I try to carry this also on the bike, but obviously it’s not always easy, and naturally you can get a bit stressed.

We’ve noticed that you have a keen interest in art, could you tell us a bit about that?

I grew up near Paris, and when I was young, I was always going into the city with my friends. Several of my friends took up art as a hobby, and I was often visiting their exhibitions. What I like is that it’s an entirely different world than cycling. It’s really refreshing when you think about something else when you come back home – even the people in that world are so different – so I think it’s really good for the mind to just think about and speak with diverse people. I think it’s very interesting; everyone is different. It’s important for me to have some time in the off-season to disconnect from cycling.

After training, what is your favorite meal to cook?

I really like to cook. I like gnocchi a lot, just with a bit of cheese. I try to avoid rice at home because I’m eating so much rice at the races so at home it’s forbidden. I don’t want to see it! If it’s really hard training, then I go for pasta or gnocchi, just carbs, really simple food. Late in the day, I like porridge with some fruit or something sweet.

Favorite race to watch?

The classics, because there is always something happening. Not for me to race, though! Otherwise, I like the last week of a Grand Tour when everyone is tired; this is when you can see big things happening in the mountains.

Dream race to win?

A mountain stage in the Tour de France. A day with a big breakaway and a huge crowd everywhere cheering.

Favorite off-season dinner?

A nice homemade burger, fresh bread, meat that is rare in the middle with some good cheese. Don’t forget the fries!