Katusha-Alpecin’s Sven Erik Bystrom Gets Pez’d
Rider Interview: Two years ago Sven Erik Bystrøm was a young man about to start his professional career, admittedly he was a World champion, but his life was about to change. Since then he has become Alexander Kristoff’s right hand man in the Classics, finished his first Grand Tour and is now starting his third season in the WorldTour and still only 24.
The Katusha-Alpecin 2017 team presentation was set in the brand new Grand Luxor hotel near the holiday resort of Benidorm and after two years of top flight cycle racing, it was time PEZ had an up-date from Norway’s Sven Erik Bystrøm. Our man in Spain, Alastair Hamilton, was there to get the inside line on life as a young pro in one of the top teams.
A Norwegian in Sunny Spain
PEZ: When I interviewed you two years ago you had just arrived in the Katusha team, you were a little bit nervous. How do you feel now?
Sven Erik Bystrøm: A little bit more calm now. Of course when you first become a professional you are a little… excited and maybe a little scared, well not scared, but you meet new people, you are young and you don’t know how to react about things. Now I’m a little bit calmer and I feel like a really big part of the team.
PEZ: You are like one of the old guys now.
Well, older at least.
PEZ: How do you feel when you see the new, young guys come to the team?
We have a lot of new arrivals, young guys. So I see myself in them and that they are in the same situation I was in two years ago. What can I do? I try to welcome them to the team and to stay calm, there is no big stress, and we are a big group of nice guys, almost like a big family and that seems OK with all the riders.
PEZ: Have you settled into your role in the team?
Yeah, I think so. Last year I tried a few different races than Kristoff, so I could go for some of my own chances also. But I had some bad luck with the crashes I had. I was injured for a total of four or five weeks last season, so that was not so easy. This year (2017) I will go back more to the program I had in 2015 with Alex.
PEZ: This year Kristoff maybe wasn’t as good as the year before, does that affect everyone else in his group of riders in the team?
Not too much, but in 2015 he won almost everything, he was flying in the Classics. I think he won every race from De Panne to the Scheldeprijs, so that was pretty impressive and it’s hard to do the same the year after. I was a little bit expecting that because it was going to be difficult for him to win everything like that every year. Journalists always ask questions when things don’t go the right way. But I don’t think it affected us riders that much actually.
For me; I train with him almost every day at home, I could see he wasn’t weaker this year, it was just that he had more bad luck in the races, I think, and there is a small margin between winning and second and third. In the Tour de France he lost by 1 centimeter to Sagan and that is the difference between a successful year and a not so successful year.
PEZ: Does Kristoff show his disappointment or is he the same guy he normally is?
He’s the same guy, but when he doesn’t win, for sure he’s disappointed. After the race it takes maybe a few hours or a day and then he is the same guy again. That’s the good thing with him, he takes everything directly after the race and he will say it like it is and doesn’t hide anything and that’s it. Also this year we had a rider like Sagan who was really strong. It’s hard to say, but maybe the level was a little bit higher this year that 2015, but we will never know… there always has to be one winner.
PEZ: What was it like to get your first Grand Tour under your belt (Vuelta a España)?
It was a really good experience. It was perfect for me to finish it. It was really hard. I wanted to fight for a stage victory, but it turned out quite early that I was struggling in the Vuelta. I had a rough time, I had done the Olympics and was in good shape of that, and just before la Vuelta I had to go to the Arctic Race, so I flew from Rio de Janeiro to the North of Norway in one day the race was going and so that was my preparation. I started the Vuelta a little bit on the limit already and then on the sixth stage I had a bad crash again, and I suffered the next days until the first rest day and then it was all about surviving. I finished and that was my main goal and in the end I was pretty happy with that.
PEZ: Many riders say that their body feels different after their first Grand Tour, have you noticed a difference?
Yeah, a little bit maybe. After the Vuelta I had one week of rest and then I felt really good in training, I felt like those three weeks had done something to my body. I felt stronger on everything, and I think after a rest it used to take longer to get back into shape again, but now it is still there I feel. So I hope I can bring that into the next season.
PEZ: Do you know if you will ride a Grand Tour next year?
I hope I can do the Tour de France, I’m on the list, but we also have a lot of strong riders, but there is the potential to do this and I hope I can do it.
PEZ: It was a very tough Vuelta, apart from the top ten guys, everyone was in trouble. What were your thoughts?
It was a really hard Vuelta and the weather was really hot, so for me the Vuelta course was maybe a little bit the same every day. Almost every day was short, hard climbs to the finish and there would be ten GC riders fighting and the rest were doing what they could to help and survive. It could be a little bit more like the Tour de France with some flat stages and some climbing stages; the Vuelta has medium and climbing stages. For an experience it was great, but I would prefer to have a more normal stage race.
PEZ: You still live in Norway?
Yeah, I like it there. Alex and me live close each other there, he has his family and I have my girlfriend there and my family, so it’s great and the weather is not so bad. Everyone in the South of Europe thinks that we Norwegians only have icebergs and snow all over, but the climate is more like Belgium. It can be wet, but it’s OK for road training.
PEZ: Do you know most of your schedule for next year?
I will start with Down Under and then Algarve and then the Classic program with Alex. After this I do the Tour of Yorkshire and California also with Alex and then it will be either Dauphine or Suisse, that’s not decided yet. Then hopefully the Tour de France. I will follow Alex from February until the Tour and hopefully I can do a good job for him, help him out and also be strong enough to be selected for the Tour.
PEZ: What do you want from 2017?
I want win something for myself, it has been more than two years since I won the World’s under 23, so I also aim for the smaller races for my own results. It would be nice to have a good start in Australia; I think if I can do a good job now I could get a good result there. Also during the Classics, in De Panne I did well two years ago. That is my main goal, to get a nice result, a win in a race this season and to be a very important rider for Alex and help him out and hopefully he will have the same season he had in 2015.
PEZ: Your form now is OK for Australia?
Yes, it feels pretty good. I did some good training in November in Norway and normally we don’t rest that much, maybe I had two weeks off in October after the Worlds and then we go pretty much full gas. I like to do it this way and my trainer does it this way so….
PEZ: Did you have a holiday?
I had a small like holiday, but it was in my home country in Norway, so it was just to be off the bike for two weeks and relax and start again. It was good for the mind and the season was very long with a lot of traveling, so to be home was the perfect holiday for me.
PEZ: What did you think of the World championships in Qatar?
Sure it was a strange place to have it, in Qatar. Actually it was also interesting and I liked it because I also rode the team time trial there and we had to prepare with the special things, like for the heat and everything that had to be important with the drinks and the hydration which was something special for this race, this I like actually. We stayed there for two weeks, which was really good preparation for the road race which looked really good until 500 meters to go, for Alex. It was a strange race.
It was all about position before that crosswind section, I was also there, but unfortunately I had bad luck in the feed zone on the highway before the circuit, so it was a pity that I was in the second group. For us in Norway the big thing was with the situation with Boasson Hagen and Alex, I couldn’t make a big difference anyway.
PEZ: Has the differences between Boasson Hagen and Kristoff been sorted out?
After the race we had a meeting where we spoke about it and to be honest it was not so good a meeting. Alex was very clear and very disappointed in Edvald’s lead-out and Edvald didn’t apologize, but did agree that it was a bad lead-out, he tried his best, although everyone else though he was thinking of his own chances. Bit it is a problem every country has in the World championships. Germany had the same with three leaders, France almost the same. So it is a really difficult situation because they aren’t in the same team, normally, so… It was a pity as Alex thought he could have the World championship jersey if he had a good lead-out from Edvald and he can be a very good lead-out man. It was not so good this situation happened, but next year we have new chances. Hopefully they can work it out better next year.
PEZ: Bergen in Norway next year, the same thing could happen?
It’s a different course. The climb is similar to Ponferrada (Worlds 2014), I would say. It will be for the Classics riders, not for the pure sprinters and not for the climbers either, somewhere in-between. It could turn either way, a rider like Valverde could win, or Alex could win.
Of course. That would be impressive. It is something special when you have the Worlds in your home country, it’s not far from where I come from and where I live, and it’s really close and really special. It will be really interesting to see how we can work together.
PEZ: Two years ago I asked you about riding the cobbles and you said you wanted to ride Flanders and Roubaix.
I did Flanders, not this year but last year, it was supposed to be this year (2016) also, but I got sick after Gent-Wevelgem and went home. I love the cobbled Classics, I love Flanders. I have not done Roubaix, I would like to but the team has another plan for this race. One day for sure I want to ride Roubaix but I am better suited for Flanders. I was working to help Alex and in that edition he won, so I did my job. I wasn’t there at the end, but it is important to protect him for the first 150K. It was an amazing experience to do this for the first time and be on the winning team.
PEZ: Would you say the team has changed with ‘Purito’ leaving etc?
We still have Zakarin, but the team is a little changed now. Purito of course was a great rider and a great person, a great personality, but in the Tour de France he had his program and his guys and Alex had his group of guys and so it was a little bit of a divided team there. This year it will be more for Alex. I think Zakarin will ride the Giro and so they have divided it a little bit more. Also we have nine or ten others on the team, so for sure it will be different in other ways.
PEZ: What will you be telling me in two years time?
Ah! It’s hard to say, but we will see and hopefully I can win some races and be a leader in some races. I like my position, I like to be a helper and of course to go for my own chances. I really like to travel around and ride my bike, like I do. In cycling one race can change your life, you see riders like Matt Hayman, he won Roubaix, before this he was a super helper and then he won Roubaix and his life will be completely different when you win a bog Classic like this. I’m only 24. I have time. Hopefully I’ll still be a professional in ten more years… or twenty!
# Thanks to Sven Erik for his time and to Philippe Maertens for his help setting up the interview. #