• Yob Hillewaert

Episode 1 - Climbing to the top with Gino Mäder

Updated: May 1, 2020

Gino Mäder is one of the most anticipated climbers among the neo pro’s. The 22 year old transfer of Team Dimension Data is part of a Swiss golden generation. At the 2018 world championship, Mäder and two of his Swiss teammates occupied three spots in the top seven, with the Swiss Marc Hirschi taking the top step on the podium and Mäder coming in fourth. This is the story of the neo pro Gino Mäder, one of the top climbers of the U23 peloton of 2018. He talked to The Young Peloton about his career and how he nearly managed to win the most prestigious stage race in the U23 category: the Tour de l’Avenir.

Copyright Cassandra Donne

A Swiss boy with a plan

Let's start at the beginning. What made you take up cycling?

“Well, both of my parents have been cyclists. I decided to give it a try when I was ten years old and immediately fell in love with it.”

I read that the breakup of your parents deeply affected you and your cycling career.

“True. I was sixteen at the time. As a child, seeing your parents divorce is very stressful. I remember the moment my dad told us that he was moving out as if it happened yesterday. It was already dark outside, but I needed to go on my bike to release all the stress the news involved. So I took the indoor rollers, I had to do a training. Riding on those rollers, I decided to become a professional bike rider. I was determined to bring them back together. It’s foolish, but I figured they still had to see each other at my races. Becoming a professional was always a dream, but then and there I made a concrete plan in order to reach my goal.”

Do your parents still see each other at your races?

“They still do, which is nice. They are pretty proud of what I’m doing and I'm glad they get along.”

The road of an U23 rider: 2016 - 2018

Looking at your results from your three years as an U23 rider, 2018 seemed a huge step forward compared to 2016 and 2017. You ended 2017 well with a third place in the Giro di Lombardia U23, and from there everything went uphill. What happened?

“When I passed from the juniors to the U23 ranks in 2016, I adapted quite fast. In the Tour of Flanders U23 I finished 34th and I was happy with that result. Afterwards things got more difficult. I got sick and wasn't able to compete on a very high level anymore. The year after, in 2017, I had a bad start of the year, got sick again and suffered from heart problems. I was forced to do a seven week break, and when those were over I crashed my bike into a car and broke some bones in my foot. That was five weeks ahead of the Tour de l’Avenir, when I was supposed to pick up my training. With five weeks of training with broken bones, I went to the Tour de l'Avenir, even though by the start the broken bones hadn't healed yet.”

The doctor let you train and race with broken bones?

“The doctor let me train and go to the race because I was able to put my foot in my shoe. I had to cut the shoe to get into it, though. (laughs) With the bad preparation, I was happy to finish 16th in the GC. [general classification – Ed.]”

The third place in the Giro di Lombardia U23 showed that you were back on track.

"One week before, I had dropped from the front group on the World Championships U23 in Norway. But I knew the shape was there and that it was only a bad day, and then a week later I had a very good day in Lombardia. In the race, I went on my own after the first climb and raced solo until 30 kilometres before the finish. Then I got company from Alexandr Riabushenko [now UAE Team Emirates - Ed.] and someone whose name I don’t remember. [Andrea Cacciotti – Ed.] Until then I was doing record watt numbers for ninety minutes. (laughs) I never saw my numbers get that high before, so I was really happy after the race.

Did ou attack too early and wast too much energy to win there?

“You could say that, but before the start of the race I hadn’t even counted on a podium spot. I got podium, so I wouldn’t say it was too early. I should have waited for the other two riders to join me, though. My sports director told me to wait for the group, but I had already done an hour by myself, so that didn’t make sense. He was speaking Italian and I replied in German, so there was a bit of a misunderstanding. I thought he wanted me to wait for a whole group and not just two riders. Then I saw on a sign from the motor bike there were only two riders behind me, so I waited. I had already used a lot of energy during the race, but third was a good result.”

Chapeau, a heroic attack to close the 2017 season. What was your goal for 2018?

“I had a good winter and started the season not too bad with a fourth place in G.P. Palio del Recioto. [a hilly Italian race – Ed.] For 2018, the Tour de l’Avenir was the only goal I had in mind though. I told myself to work step by step: ‘if you can finish 16th in the Tour de l’Avenir with just five weeks of training, let’s see what you can do with a proper training', I told myself. I tried my legs in the Tour de l’Isard and went for a stage there. I succeeded and won the stage...”

...With an advantage of over three minutes on the second rider.

(laughs) “I knew I was on track. In the Tour d’Alsace I didn’t have good legs on the first day, so I also went for a stage there and it worked out again, which gave me a lot of confidence for the Tour de l’Avenir.."

Copyright Cassandra Donne

Stepping up the game - Tour de l’Avenir 2018

Marc Hirschi was second in the GC of the Tour d’Alsace, while you took a stage. Going into the Tour de l’Avenir as Swiss teammates, who was going to be the team leader?

“Because Hirschi did a good classification in Alsace, he was the leader. But at the race, he didn’t have the best week, while I had one of my best. After Hirschi’s blew up his legs when he tried to follow Pogačar [winner of the Tour de l’Avenir 2018, now UAE Team Emirates – Ed.] on the first mountain finish and I finished eleventh, we changed the roles and Hirschi helped me to get a good result. Because I had helped him become European Champion a few months before, he wanted to do something back.”

You and Hirschi seem to have developed a skill to attack in the downhill.

"In Alsace, me and Hirschi found out that we had a feeling for getting away in the downhill. Something that we tried again in the Tour de l'Avenir. We knew that if we would have a twenty seconds gap at the beginning of the last climb, we could be able to sustain the lead until the finish line. Attacking in the downhill is not too hard. Whether you are in front or behind, you use the same amount of energy. So we gave it a try in that eighth stage of the Tour de l’Avenir. Unfortunately, Hirschi had a puncture. I escaped from the group and finished solo, which was really cool."

After that stage, there were two mountain stages left.

“In stage nine I had good legs, but made a few tactical mistakes. I can say that I lost the Tour de l’Avenir on that day. The day after, stage 10, was the last day of racing. I was in fifth place overall: either I was going for another stage win or I would try to defend my spot in the top five. I'm someone who doesn’t race for a fifth place, but always rides to win. I had already pulled off a downhill attack, and planned to do the same. The stage had been shortened, which was not really in my favour. First there was 80 kilometres more or less downhill. It was a tough day, Vlasov [now Katusha – Ed.] and Dunbar [now Team Sky – Ed.] attacked a few times. It was war.”

And you attacked as well.

“I attacked on the climb after the long downhill and then went alone into the next descend. I did a time trial to the finish line, but was caught. I don’t know how I could manage to win the sprint of the group after the effort I had made, but I did. I believe it was a sheer question of motivation and will.”

It was a sprint of climbers, an ugly sprint which is always hard to predict.

“If you watch the video of the sprint, you will see a true climbers sprint. Waiting for the last moment to accelerate.” (laughs)

Fight for the Rainbow jersey - The Worlds 2018

The Swiss result at the World championship U23 was terrific: Marc Hirschi won, you came in fourth and Patrick Müller [Vital Concept - B&B Hotels - Ed.] seventh. Again, Switzerland decided the race on the downhill. Was that the plan from the start?

“Actually, no. The days before the race, the road hadn’t been closed from traffic, so we couldn't do a recon before the race. Then two laps before the finish, our Swiss team had seven riders on the front of the peloton. ‘Guys, what do you think, let’s test the downhill’, someone proposed. ‘Let’s do it.’ After the rather fast downhill, I told my teammates to stay calm and mix up with the peloton again. They smiled and told me to look behind, because we had dropped the others and it was only the seven of us left.”

At the very end of the race, only three riders were left in contention for the win: Bjorg Lambrecht [Belgium - Ed.], Marc Hirschi and Jaakko Hänninen [Finland - Ed.]. Hirschi did not seem the strongest on the climbs, but he pulled it off.

“Hirschi stayed cool, he knew where he had to attack. For sure, he knew that Hänninen [now AG2R La Mondiale - Ed.] would not react. Lambrecht [Lotto Soudal - Ed.] had already shown that he was the strongest. So when Hänninen takes a turn to close the gap on Hirschi, he will never do it at a hundred percent. He was only an outsider for the race. Of course, he got really strong results in France, beating Rein Taaramaë [at the Tour du Gévaudan Occitanie - Ed.], so we all knew that he was strong. But he didn’t have a team, he was on his own. Why should he take turns at 100 percent?”

Because that was the only way he could win the race?

“Even then. Then he would go to a sprint with Bjorg Lambrecht. It’s ninety percent certain that he was going to lose in a situation like that. I don’t know for certain, but maybe Lambrecht was the strongest of the day.”

Earlier in the race, Bjorg Lambrecht had made gestures towards other riders, because nobody wanted to take turns with him uphill.

"How do you want others to take turns when they’re already going full gas, trying to hold your wheel? Lambrecht was nervous and Hirschi stayed cool. Hirschi managed it quite smart. I’m proud to say that he was my teammate."

So why aren’t you in the same team now? [Hirschi rides for Team Sunweb, while Mäder rides for Dimension Data – Ed.]

“Because otherwise it would be too easy at the Swiss championships.” (laughs)

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Choosing for Team Dimension Data in 2019

When did you first realise you had talent for cycling?

“Actually, everything only started to sink around the time I signed for Team Dimension Data. At the Tour de l’Avenir, so many things happened that I didn’t have time to realise everything yet.”

You talked to more than ten teams before you decided to go with Team Dimension Data. Why did you choose for them?

“I was thinking about an option that would suit me the best and I always liked the vision of Team Dimension Data. They ride for charity, the slogan is there for a reason: ‘I ride my bike for Qhubeka’."

Is it also because the biggest GC riders, like Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, aren't on the team? This may allow you to get your own chances.

“We have riders like Ben O’Connor and Louis Meintjes, but there aren't too many riders with the same strengths as me. That enables me to do my own thing, like I did in Argentina [Mäder finished eleventh in the GC of the Tour de San Juan – Ed.] For me, it's also a good team for my learning process, given the experience of Bernie Eisel, Cav [Mark Cavendish - Ed.], Danilo Wyss, Valgren Andersen, Kreuziger,... There is a lot of experience and quality in my team, it’s awesome.”

It must be a dream to sit at the same table like Cav and Valgren.

“It is, it is." [makes a proud face] "I have already told Edvald Boasson Hagen that he’s a legend, because he absolutely is. Next to him, I ride with Cav, who won thirty stages in the Tour de France. It’s incredible that I can call those guys my teammates. It really makes me realise that I achieved something, it feels great.”

The future and past of Swiss cycling

Are you from the same region as Fabian Cancellara?

“I worked in the place where he lives, Bern. It’s not too far away.”

As a junior, you were Swiss time trial champion and finished fifth in the World Championships TT U19. Did he inspire you in riding against the clock ?

“That he came from the same country absolutely helped. Also, in the U19 ranks Daniel Gisiger was the national coach. As a rider, he had attacked the hour record. [he came 1.686 metres short of Eddy Merckx’s record, which was set at higher altitude in Mexico – Ed.] He adores the time trial discipline, all of the Swiss riders learned a lot from him.”

There is a really talented Swiss generation of riders coming up. Do you motivate each other to push against the limit?

“We go way back. When I was racing the U17 and U19 categories in Switzerland, all the races went the same. From the start we attacked until we managed to break away. We were always the same four: Reto Müller and his brother Patrick, me and Marc Hirschi. We saw each other every weekend, raced against each other and took the same train back home.”

So, they’re your best friends?

“They surely are my best enemies." (laughs) "We get along very well."

Copyright Cassandra Donne

Goals and objectives for 2019

The Belgian race Flèche Brabançonne is on your schedule. I think it may be suited for you, so maybe you can go for a top ten there.

“Belgian races are for sure really nice. But as I said, I never race for a top ten or even a top five.” (laughs) “Most of the times, you just want your team to win the race. If doing your best is enough, then that’s good. If it’s not enough, you go home to train even better.”

Okay, so why did you stay in the peloton of the Tour of San Juan then, when Alaphilippe attacked with Benoot and Quintana on a hill a few kilometres before the finish of stage. You were right there, in the front of the peloton.

“When I saw Sagan, Alaphilippe and Quintana sitting next to me, I felt like a small fish. ‘I’m a nobody’, I told myself. At that moment I didn’t have the same trust in my qualities as I had back in the U23 races. But I learned a lot from the Tour de San Juan, things that I will take with me to the next races. Actually, it was so hot and tough that when Alaphilippe accelerated, I was already happy to be sitting in the front group. I just wanted to survive”

What are your goals for 2019?

“It sounds boring, but it’s true: I just want to get stronger, build a better engine and help the team. I don’t focus on my results, now I focus on getting as good as I can.”

Race style and future goals

What kind of rider would you say you are? You sound like someone who values winning a stage in the Giro higher than finishing twelfth in its GC.

“Winning gives you a special feeling. I prefer winning than racing for a top ten spot, it’s just not the same. Of course, I will leave the thinking part to the sports directors of my team. I just race, if there’s an opportunity to win, I’ll try to grab it.”

The way Bob Jungels won Liège Bastogne Liège reminds me of racing style in the Tour de l’Avenir.

“He pulled off an impressive solo victory today as well, in the Tour of Colombia. I still have to work on these two minute performances. Maybe in the future.” (laughs) “It doesn’t matter to me whether a race profile is flat or hilly. If I have a chance of winning, I'll try. In that sense, cycling is simple for me: it’s about winning. ‘Did you win?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you satisfied?’ ‘Yes’. You didn’t win? Then you’re not satisfied.”

Sometimes teams have a different mentality than its riders. Lotto-Soudal for example seems to be satisfied with a sixth place in the biggest classics, while their rider Tiesj Benoot is sometimes disappointed with a top five.

“The level of racing is that high that sometimes, you’re just happy with the performance, even though you didn't win. You can’t always win, but you can always try. If you did a really good race, but another rider is stronger, that’s how it is. He may have more talent or he may have had a better preparation. If he’s in front of you at the finish line, he deserves it.”

In line with the comparison to Bob Jungels: do you want to be a GC rider or do you also have an interest in classics like Liège Bastogne Liège?

“So far, the races I have enjoyed the most are the stage races like Tour de l’Avenir. So I can say that I strive to become a GC rider.”

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