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by Shane Stokes
November 21, 2014
Speaking about a possible return to a race he hasn’t competed in since 2011, former Milan-Sanremo winner Gerald Ciolek has said riding the Tour de France again is a major objective for him in 2015.
The German sprinter’s MTN-Qhubeka team has met with Tour organisers ASO and is awaiting confirmation about whether or not it will be given a wildcard invite to next year’s race. This week it was handed participation slots in two of ASO’s early season events, the Tours of Qatar and Oman.
Prior to that news, general manager Brian Smith said that he would interpret such invites as a good sign vis-à-vis riding cycling’s biggest event.
Confirmation of the Tour de France wildcards could come as early as January.
Should the team get an invite, Ciolek would be one of its best chances of a stage win. He is one of the stronger sprinters on selective courses, as shown by his 2013 Milan-Sanremo win, and is fired up by the thoughts of returning to the event.
“That would be a great thing. To be the first African team going to the Tour de France would be really good,” he told CyclingTips this week. “For myself, I already forgot about the suffering in the Tour de France. I would be glad to go back.
“It is the biggest race in the world and all the riders are super ambitious and super excited to ride in it.”
As Ciolek points out, the MTN Qhubeka team would make history if selected. While another South African-based squad, Barloworld, previously took part in the race, it was registered in Europe. MTN Qhubeka is both registered in South Africa and also has a much stronger representation from the continent, including many black athletes.
It has also made a number of high profile acquisitions in recent months in order to boost its success rate, with several strong sprinters being brought on board.
These include Theo Bos, Matt Goss, Tyler Farrar, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg.
Providing the leadout train gels, Ciolek knows that this could be a very powerful – and potentially successful – lineup.
“We are adding a lot more strong riders to the team, so that give us more possibilities in the races,” he said. “We had this year three or four guys who can win races, but next year we will have probably eight or ten guys who are able to do that. That gives us a bunch of possibilities.”
Although the addition of those riders will in theory mean that Ciolek will have fewer chances to be the sole protected rider when it comes to bunch sprints, he also knows that the stronger leadout train should boost his chances on the days that he is the designated sprinter.
Asked how he saw that combination of riders syncing together, he said that it would take time to get a clearer picture.
“I guess that is a thing we still have to figure out. We need to train this and see how we fit together,” he explained. “Then it is also about making a race programme where everybody gets his goals and know what you can focus on. Once that’s done, it’s up to the others to support the guy who is chosen for the races.”
The team’s general manager Brian Smith recently spoke at length to CyclingTips about the new team dynamics and said then that one of the new riders would likely be designated as leader in the mass sprints.
“I think the only bunch sprinter we have in terms of competing with the top guys in the world is Theo Bos” he said. “If it comes down to a sprint in a stage race against Cavendish or Kittel, or in a race such as Schledeprijs, we will go and lead out Theo and try to get him to the win.”
However Ciolek and the other fastmen will also get their chances. They will be more resilient than Bos on the lumpier stages, and will also be able to use their strengths in Classic races.
“I believe that Goss, Farrar, these types of riders are more suited towards the Classics,” said Smith, talking about the newcomers. Ciolek also fits into that category.
“If any one of these riders comes to the finish of Gent Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix in a small group with all three or four, we are in with a chance of winning.
“When you get to the end of the race, you hear from a lot of amateur riders, ‘I have nothing left in my legs.’ These sprinters get to the finish of a race and they still have got big power. Goss has already proven it. Ciolek has already proven it.
“Farrar is excited about us taking him out of that mould of bunch sprinter at Garmin and into more of a Classics rider.”
Ciolek had a superb first season with the team in 2013, winning Milan-Sanremo and also taking victories on stages of the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, the Tour of Austria, the Tour of Britain and Bayern-Rundfahrt.
This season was a bit more muted, with victory on the third stage of the Vuelta a Andalucia representing his only win.
“In general the season went all right,” he said, looking back at recent months and how things panned out. “There were some goals I couldn’t achieve, things that didn’t go like I hoped them to go. But otherwise I am quite happy with the season.”
However he makes clear that he’s not satisfied with the top target, the Tour of Spain.
“The Vuelta was a big goal at the end of the year but it went pretty bad for myself,” he said, referring to a campaign which brought best stage placings of 11th and 16th. “That was the bad point about last year.”
Ciolek knows that 2014 didn’t match up to 2013 and will be keen to try to get things back on track. He and the other riders are meeting up at the first training camp in South Africa and, after getting to know the new riders and training with them, he will work on season planning with the staff and start building towards 2015.
He said he has a rough idea of his likely programme, although that will be finalised at the camp. “It might be more or less the same as this year,” he said. “It starts with the spring races, the Belgian races and Milan-Sanremo as one of the spring Classics, which is a big goal again. There won’t be too many changes compared to this year.”
Going back to Sanremo will enable him to try to chase another victory in the race. He was ninth earlier this season and wants to chase the top podium position in his next participation.
“My results have showed me I can be successful if I have a perfect preparation for this race,” he said, thinking about La Primavera. “In the years before [earlier in his career – ed.] I always liked this race.
“I knew that it could suit me but it actually never did because I made big mistakes in pre-season preparation for this race. As a result I was never good for Milan-Sanremo.”
He put that right in 2013 and is particularly motivated to repeat that success.
With a stronger train now in place, he and the other MTN Qhubeka riders should be a big force as the last kilometres tick down and the final action plays out.