Belgian grand tour talent Maxence Place makes season debut in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne: "Call me Max"
Wallonian Belgian Max Place (18) made a remarkable debut in the junior ranks last year. For AG2R Citroën U19, the first year blossomed in the shadow of his teammate Romain Grégoire with loads of promising results in first and foremost climbing. He topped his season off winning the general classification of the Philippe Gilbert juniors.
Now Grégoire has moved up to the U23 category, plenty of heads will look into Place’s direction to take on a leading role in the AG2R team. But who is Max Place? We looked him up in his own neighbourhood around Namur to talk about his past, present and future. “Having character is important. Either you have it or you don’t. I always give the best of myself and in sport, that can be very rewarding”, says Place.
Do you prefer the first name Maxence or Max?
“Max. Just like Froome prefers Chris to Christopher.”
Chris Froome is your favourite rider. Can you tell us why?
“When I was little and I watched the Tour de France, it was for him that I cheered. Me and my family were at the Champs Elysees in 2013 when he won his first Tour. It was he who inspired me to become a cyclist. I was always a fan of Froome and his Team Ineos. I read his biography. It was a bit like Mowgli in Jungle Book, but especially his persistence was striking. Even now, when everybody stops believing he can win the Tour, he keeps believing that he will. He’s a good example.”
When did you start riding your bike?
“I was twelve years old and directly started competing.”
That was after seeing Chris Froome in the Tour de France? He inspired you?
“Yes, I played my own Tour de France in my neighbourhood with my friends. Here around my house, with different stages of multiple kilometres. Here, the hills are never very long but it’s always up and down. I always wrote the results on pieces of paper. And yes, I did win. Though sometimes it was just me against myself.” (laughs)
You trained your explosivity around the hills in this neighbourhood.
“I am not very explosive, but the repetition of hills here is something I am very used to. In the Philippe Gilbert for example, it was the same. Always up and down. Because I am used to it I tend to do well there.”
The thing that defines you the most is your mentality. Is that true?
“Having character is important. Either you have it or you don’t. I always give the best of myself and that is very rewarding in sport.”
Right now you are in the junior team of AG2R Citroën. How did you join this team as a Belgian?
“Actually, cyclists can apply as a candidate. I thought it was only a team for French riders, so at first I wasn’t interested. But it was an Englishman who told me on Facebook that I should apply. I did and got onto the team. Everything goes very well here, so I can go on following this path.”
For AG2R Citroën, next to cycling, studies are very important.
“Yes, as a rider you sign up for a double project, school and cycling. For example, if you don’t do well in school it’s going to be hard to continue with AG2R.”
Right now, you go to an elite school near your home.
“I want to do further studies and my school is at a really high level. We really don’t just go to class to paint up the walls. It’s pretty intense. My studies are a lot of work, but it’s something I choose for as well. It’s a good preparation to finally go to university.”
What would you like to study at university?
“Actually, I’m still not sure and keep shifting interests. I would like to do something in science. But maybe that would be too hard to combine with cycling.”
If you would develop with AG2R Citroën U23, you are not only obliged to study hard. You also have to move to Chambéry.
“Yes, the particularity of the U23 team is that they live together in Chambéry. It’s a bit like living in a family. They are in the same apartments and spend lots of time with each other.”
Moving to Chambéry would mean moving 650 kilometres away from home. Not easy. How important is keeping your family close for you?
“It’s very important, but I still have to think about what I am going to do next. I will take my decision around August this year.”
Next to Chris Froome are also a fan of Sebastian Vettel, the F1-rider.
“Yes, it’s actually him who sparked my interest for formule 1. He is still one of my two favourite riders. Vettel always look at the details and tries to make others understand what is happening.”
That interest in details, does it also count for you?
“The day before a race I’m always on Strava and Google Maps to look at the climbs of a route or places that may be dangerous. And with AG2R for example, we always make a good preparation before we do a race. There is a PowerPoint of the route and the different climbs are presented. Also the previous winners, climbing times and average speed of the previous editions of the race are told.”
Are you also trying to figure all the mechanisms of your bike?
“The mechanics of the bike are a bit my weak spot. But I try to get to know my bike as good as possible.”
Especially the mechanics of a time trial bike are important. Do you often train on this bike?
“Yes, I have my TT bike here at home. With my own wheels. The time trial position on your bike is very important. I don’t go to a wind tunnel with my bike, but with AG2R we have access to a simulation of a wind tunnel. Because I go into my neighbourhood in the up and down terrain, I am good at staying in TT position on a tough parcours.”
Last year in Trofeo Saarland, you almost won a TT. Was that a surprise?
“It was. The whole year, I had been riding good time trials. But because I am very light I never thought of getting really good results there. At the same time as I was happy to get second in Trofeo Saarland, I lost by only two hundredths of a second.”
On the junior ranking you were the best first year junior of last year. Was that on your mind going into the season?
“Not at all. I didn’t expect to do so well. I had a race calendar with a lot of UCI races, but to finish as the best young junior, gives a lot of desire to make progress and to become one of the best juniors this year.”
Does it give pressure for this season?
“Yes and no. I do feel a bit of expectations after such a good year. I want to do better, but I don’t give myself too much pressure. I continue with doing my preparation as I always have.”
This year you will be at the starting line of Flemish classics as well, even though you remain a climber.
“Yes, I will line-up in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Nokere Koerse. Maybe also Ghent-Wevelgem. Not the E3, because the Belgian championships time trial are on the same day. It’s a fact that you have to ride in Flanders to get used to riding in a peloton. In Wallonia, the routes are harder and there are less riders at the start. The level is also lower than it is in Flanders.”
Last year, Romain Grégoire has been the leader of the team. You have got to know him well. What does he mean for you?
“Both on and off the bike he is a leader. He is a golden teammate. In Aubel-Thimister for example, we did bad on the third day in the team time trial. The moral in the team was bad afterwards. But Grégoire pulled a speech which completely motivated us for the last stage. And on this stage we rode incredibly well. Grégoire won and I was in a group not far behind him. That was brilliant.”
In the dilemma’s we asked you about earlier, you said no to both wine and beer.
“I don’t drink any alcohol. I’m not attracted by it. If I wouldn’t do cycling, I would have a different view, but now I don’t even feel like tasting it. Only smelling.”
You chose the Giro in front of the Tour.
“One of the reasons is that my mother’s family is Italian. For me, Italy is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. And then there is the food… with the bolognese sauce of my grandmother. Even when my mother prepares it with the same ingredients as my grandmother, it’s not the same.”
And you rather race when it’s raining than in sunshine?
“Yes, because then the race is harder for everyone. Also, when it’s raining, some riders tend to be scared to slip in the corners, but I’m not afraid to fall.”
There is a tendency where riders turn professional right after the junior category. Would you say yes if you were offered a pro contract next year?
“No. I feel like I need two years to grow as an U23 rider, because I’m not ready to turn professional. There is still a big gap between the yearly amount of kilometres I’m doing on the bike and what the professionals do. Last year I rode 18.000 kilometres, for example. Since the phenomenon of Remco Evenepoel, professional teams have been looking into the junior ranks for new riders. But there is only one Evenepoel. I’m rather not already at my best level at 21 years old, but a bit later like Froome.”
Does music have a place for you at races?
“At the same time as I like to be around family and friends, I like to be in my own bubble before a race. I play my music in my earphones to focus. Before a race I listen to music like Neffex or Eminem. The rhythm and the lyrics of the music motivate me.”
Attack till the end is your motto.
“It’s Alberto Contador’s motto and it’s one that I follow. It’s true that before the race is over, you should never let go. In the Philippe Gilbert for example, in the last stage at 30 kilometres from the finish line a break of twenty riders had an advantage of 2.30 minutes. Everyone in the peloton said it was over. But at the foot of the Côte de la Vécqueé I attacked. I preferred to try and maybe finish twelfth after trying to close the gap instead of finishing in the peloton. And in the end, I was second on the stage and won the GC.”
What did the victory in the Philippe Gilbert mean for you?
“It was a confirmation of the good end to my season, the cherry on the cake. It will be hard to begin the season the way I left it last year, but it gives me a lot of confidence.”
What are your biggest objectives for this season?
“The world championships in Australia and the European championships in Portugal. Also the Tour du Valromey, which is a bit like a mini Tour de France. Last year that race was my deception of the year, as I fell in the first stage and suffered from back pain for the whole tour.”
This article was written in collaboration with Hannes Tahon.