When teachers asked the class what they wanted to be in the future, out came the usual answers: doctor, footballer, lawyer. Bob Jungels was different. He would always reply: “I want to be a legend.”
One teacher frowned and said: “You can't be a legend - it's not a job.”
Jungels replied: “Yeah, but I still want to be a legend.” A dozen-odd years on, he’s adamant about that. “I wasn't kidding then and it's still in my mind. Hopefully I can get close,” he says.
Bob Jungels has already broken into the WorldTour pack and has a bright future ahead. pic: Paolo Martelli
We’re used to young riders being humble. Their aims for the future? Learn the ropes, get top-10 finishes, step by step. It’s grounded but can be a little dull: they often conceal their real dreams.
Not this 22-year-old. When I ask for his future goals, he reels them off a little reluctantly, as if embarrassed by the scale of his ambition. “I haven’t written them down but they’re all in my head. I’d like to win an Ardennes Classic, it doesn't matter which one. The Tour is still a dream – of every rider, obviously. I don't know if I'm able to get there one day.
I think to win a Monument one day would be nice. Of course, the Worlds are also a pretty big goal for the future, I think.”
This is not a man short on confidence. Just as well that Jungels has the talent and drive to go with these dreams, as a former junior world time-trial champion and under-23 Paris-Roubaix champion. After two years as a professional with Trek Factory Racing, he is now quietly developing into a stage racer with a killer ability against the clock.
Of course, legend status is some way off. Outwardly, Jungels has just finished the most fallow season of his young career, the first plateau in his rise up the ranks.
Jungels made an immediate impression, but has just suffered the most fallow season of his young career. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
He picked up top-20 overall placings at the Tour of the Med and Paris-Nice and was ninth at the Critérium International. At the Dauphiné, he finished third in the prologue to Chris Froome and Alberto Contador: not bad for a man who prefers longer time-trials too. “I think the first part of the season I did really well… For me, it was the first year where I did most of the WorldTour races; it was another level up and you feel that,” he says.
But things went awry in July. First, he was wiped out by a car days before the Tour of Poland. Then he crashed again on the first day’s racing there. Worse followed on the eve of his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta while doing a TTT course recon in Jerez de la Frontera.
“I was on the front, hit a hole in the road and the front wheel exploded. I lost the handlebars and crashed. That was a terrible moment for me – I’d crashed, for maybe the fifth time that season, but also caused the whole team to go down,” he reflects.
Trek Factory Racing dusted themselves off and rode to fourth that afternoon. But the damage was done: Jungels was injured before he’d even started his first Grand Tour. “It was hard because my body just didn't really want to go on. I was struggling for maybe two weeks with the injuries.”
He was there to test the water and get into escapes, obliging on stage 17, ending the day with the Combativity Award. Two days later, tantalisingly close to the finish, he abandoned the race with saddle sores.
Jungels has a determined streak and would never cry after defeats as a junior. “I always wanted to try again, to stand up again and take revenge." pic: Paolo Martelli
“It was really frustrating because I knew I could do better. In these breakaways, I couldn't really get everything I wanted out of myself. I also missed the Worlds, which I was really motivated for. It was kind of a dark period for me, but the motivation's even bigger for 2015.”
After two years as a pro, does he have a better impression of the kind of rider he is becoming? “I hope maybe in a few years to compete in the Grand Tours. That's my goal, my dream. But I also know that I'm not ready to compete on the climbs with the best riders at the moment, that I have to improve. But I think [this season] I can do some good results in one-day races and even in one-week stage races.”
Part of this drive for self-ameloriation saw him move away from home to the Swiss town of Steinhausen last spring, mainly for climbing work: Jungels’ team-mate Gregory Rast lives just down the road.
He knows the team’s set-up well now, having turned pro in 2013 there after a few years on the Leopard-Trek Continental team. He laughs as he recalls how shy and overtrained he was at the first training camp among heroes like Fabian Cancellara and the Schleck brothers.
Jungels found a good way to ingratiate himself: by taking his – and the team’s – first victory of the season at the GP Nobili Rubinetterie. Quite a win too, riding solo with 40km left after being in a day-long breakaway.
Jungels won the 2013 Grand Premio Nobili in his neo pro season, after riding clear of a day-long breakaway with 40km of the race remaining. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“I saw my numbers on the SRM too and I knew it'd be hard for the bunch to catch me. But still, in the last kilometre, I couldn’t believe it. I almost started crying because I was just overwhelmed. I didn't expect it at all.”
The pressure wasn’t quite off his shoulders that day. “It was just before Milan-Sanremo so Fabian and all those guys were also there. That night, they asked me to do a speech in front of all the team. I was so nervous, I didn't know what to say. For them, it was funny; now, I can laugh about it. But that evening, I was sweating.”
He has learned a lot by watching what Cancellara and Jungels’ countrymen, the Schleck brothers, do to get the most out of themselves. Inevitably, there have been comparisons in the Luxembourg press between the two older stars and Jungels. “I think I'm a different rider to them; I’m more muscular, so I've got the time-trial as my best discipline. I think it's not really a good comparison, I don’t particularly like it. I'm just trying to do my best and go my way.”
The other side of the coin is being protected from the media glare by the pair. “I've been pretty lucky. I grew up in their shadow, which allowed me to do this properly, without any stress or pressure from the outside. But on the other hand, I have to say I'm a pretty ambitious character. So I put a lot of pressure on myself quite a few times, which I don't see as a negative pressure. It's more good motivation.”
Jungels can handle pressure at the pool table as well as on the bike, calmly capitalising on Rouleur's fluffed shot on the black. pic: Paolo Martelli
Jungels has already ridden the Tour of Flanders and all the Ardennes Classics in his young career. “I think I'm actually more the kind of rider who's good the longer and the harder the race is… In my first year [as a pro], I did San Sebastián and finished 15th. I like long races over six hours. That's something I have to say thanks to my parents for – it's not really something you can train.” His father Henri was a Luxembourgeois footballer as a young man.
Time to see how Bob Jungels fares when in a high-pressure scenario: I ask him to play a game of pool on the adjacent table. It’s my chance to beat a future Luxembourg legend – and Jungels wouldn’t like that. “I am a really bad loser. It always ends in revenge. I'm pretty competitive.”
The times he lost as a kid, he wouldn’t cry; he’d work harder so he could redress the balance next time. “I always wanted to try again, to stand up again and take revenge. Do some training to get better at whatever it was.”
As an adolescent, Jungels was similarly conscientious. Mechanically-minded, he would always try and seek out the lightest screws and components for his bike: any possible advantage. His passion for cars, like many young men, is partly down to a fascination with the engineering.
Jungels describes riding in the same team as childhood heroes Fabian Canellara and Frank Schleck as a dream. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
The balls start getting potted. Neither of us is exactly Ronnie O’Sullivan, but it’s turning into a close match. I ask him who his childhood hero was. “When I was really young, it was the time of Lance. He was always kind of an idol – and still is, even with all the things that happened now. I still think he was a real athlete. As for the rest, of course Fabian [Cancellara], Frank, Andy [Schleck], my team-mates now. I grew up with them as idols, I’m in the same team as them now. It's the dream.”
I return to Lance. It's so complicated talking about the history of cycling – really, it’s talking a lot about doping. Has he been criticised for that opinion before?
“I can't really say anything because I didn't know him. But I know what I saw. When I speak now, one or two guys were team-mates with him, he was kind of an impressive character. This is what impresses me most about him: his character, his personality. Because, all the rest [to do with Lance], we don't have to talk about that but... I think a champion needs this mentality, to sacrifice almost everything to reach the goals,” he says.
Jungels is learning how champions work, not just from observing Cancellara and company, but rivals too. He was on the receiving end of a masterclass from Tony Martin while in a Tour of the Basque Country breakaway last April.
Jungels thanks his parents for his enjoyment of endurance sport. pic: Paolo Martelli
“On the bike he's not really the aesthete, not perfect, but he's just a machine. Pure power. He just rode away from us like we were... amateurs,” Jungels says, deliberating on the right word for a moment.
It’s a big year for Bob Jungels. His Trek Factory Racing contract is up at the end of the season and his value will be defined by whether he can break through with some big results. Though he doesn’t even turn 23 till September, Jungels is a young man in a hurry and wants to get on that road to legend status as soon as possible.
As for the pool match? I fluff an easy shot at the black. Jungels comes roaring back and coolly sinks the final ball. You can tick pressure-handling off the list of leadership requirements. Make that the first win of the new season for Bob Jungels: potentially one of many more to come.