Speaking days before the MTN-Qhubeka’s long list for the Tour de France is announced, the team’s general manager Brian Smith has said that there is no guarantee that its biggest names will all be riding the race and that one or two well known riders could be left off the team.
Discussing the South African’s season thus far with CyclingTips, the Scot said that while some riders have impressed him, others have not performed as expected and that potentially missing the race will act as a motivation to them to step up their game in later events.
At this point in time he said that there are just two guarantees for the team.
“I can give you two definites for the Tour,” he stated. “The two have to be Edvald Boasson Hagen and also the South African champion Jacques Janse Van Rensburg. We have to take him. If you have the South African team in the race, you have to have the South African champion.
“I think to see the jersey there is very important for the sponsors and everything else surrounding the whole team.”
The Pro Continental squad made a number of high profile signings over the winter, with Boasson Hagen, Matt Goss, Theo Bos and Tyler Farrar amongst those coming on board.
Of those, Boasson Hagen and Bos have had injury issues. Farrar has clocked up several good results, but Goss has had a quieter season than most would have expected.
Winner of Milan-Sanremo in 2011, he has not reached the same level of form in recent years. Some predicted that his move to MTN Qhubeka from Orica GreenEdge could give him a spur to return to his past level but, thus far, that hasn’t happened.
Smith hints that Goss is one of those who may find himself not racing in France in July.
“With Matt, I think it’s a question of motivation with him. Okay, he puts the riders in the right place…in World Ports, he was in the right place, but crashed third wheel. It was partly his fault, partly the Lotto guys moving over in front of him.
“He has got the experience, he has got the engine…the only thing I think Matt is lacking is the motivation.
“He is good with the guys, he fits in with the team, he is a nice guy, he is strong. He is experienced. Everything is good, good, good, but if you have not that motivation to really push yourself, then I think you are going to lack in the performance side of things. The only negative I can say about Matt is just the motivational side.”
Goss’ results this year have been modest. He was 12th on stage two of Tirreno-Adriatico and eighth on stage five of the Tour of California, but otherwise has been well outside the placings. It’s safe to say he hasn’t fired on all cylinders, and hasn’t met Smith’s own expectations that the move to the team would give him a new lease of life.
“I have given the guys the first quarter of the season now [to settle in],” he said. “I am trying work with them. I am hoping to get Matt on track. Whether or not he rides the Tour is yet to be seen. But that could be the biggest motivation for him…if he doesn’t go to the Tour de France, then he has only got the Vuelta and some other races to do the business in.
“For him, maybe the motivation factor is, ‘wow, I have come down to a second division team, I can’t even make the Tour team, I have to try something.’
“So I am looking at different things. He is certainly a good lad, but I think it is just getting to know him and motivating him. The same goes with Ciolek as well.”
Ciolek is another who has not delivered as much as he might. He had a superb start with the team in 2013, winning Milan-Sanremo and four other races, but notched up just one victory in 2014 and this year has been very quiet indeed.
He fell on the Poggio and lost out on his chance of going for Milan-Sanremo again, but aside from second on stage six of Tirreno-Adriatico, has yet to clock up a top ten result.
He was eleventh recently on stage two of the World Ports Classic but Smith sees this as a clear missed opportunity.
“If you look at the World Ports race, after the crash there were 15 guys in front and he finished 11th. In a sprint finish, normally he would push for a podium place or push for the win.
“If you see Napolitano finishing second and Ciolek finishing eleventh, it doesn’t add up.”
Smith appears still to be working out what is going wrong. He said he understands that Ciolek is training hard, but feels that there is a possibility he and some other riders are putting too much pressure on themselves in a bid to live up to the high media profile MTN-Qhubeka generates.
“It [the pressure] is not coming from the team. It is maybe just pressure from themselves,” he said. “They know what they have done in the past and maybe they are a wee bit annoyed or upset that they haven’t delivered. I think it is just a kind of time thing.
“I need to look at it. Especially in the Tour selection and things like that. If I make a couple of bold moves in not selecting certain riders, I think it will maybe give them a wakeup call.”
“We are lacking in some areas…but the African riders have stepped up amazingly”
On the flipside, he does see those and other experienced riders as already achieving something very important this year.
“First and foremost the team we built for this year, the signings we made, we hit the target. That the target was to get into the Tour de France,” he said. “I know for certain having the likes of Goss, Bos and Farrar and these type of riders all contributed towards getting the African team in the Tour de France and various other races like the Tour of California.
“So, as far as the signings are concerned, that went very well and everything was on track.”
However, he is less upbeat about what some riders have achieved since then. ASO made its selection decision before any substantial amount of racing had been done.
“Regarding the performances side of things, we are lacking in a lot of areas, especially the cobbled Classics,” he said with brutal honesty. “With the loss of Edvald [he broke his collarbone in Gent-Wevelgem], that really put us [on the back foot]…we do not really have specialists when it comes to the cobbled Classics.
“Then again, with the influence of the star riders, the other African riders stepped up amazingly. They were getting in breakaways, they were more motivated. I think the riders who have come in have just breathed an element of belief into the team, no matter what their own individual performances were.
“When you have got two previous winners of Milan-Sanremo plus the likes of Edvald, the winner of Tour stages…it is amazing to see the team gel together and work together.
“Okay, the performances have been lacking, especially in the Classics period. We are on a list of those with an ambition to try and win a Classic, whether it will be the likes of Gent-Wevelgem, Milan-Sanremo and these type of races. Obviously we failed miserably in that certain area.
“But it is one of these things – if the whole team were firing and Edvald hadn’t broken his collarbone, then there were possibilities.”
Despite that, he sees progression. He states that team principal Douglas Ryder noted several weeks ago that 2015 is the first time the team has had strong representation on both sides of its double programme. While in the past one of the two squads might have been attending races without a strong enough representation to chase results, both believe the opposite is the case this season.
“There is progression,” he said. “The team that we are going to the Tour with, I believe there could be some revelations there and we could go there with our heads held up. And, to be honest with you, looking at our Vuelta team, I think it looks just as strong.
“Some of the riders have been disappointing, they know who they are on the performance side, but like I said before they do bring a certain element to the team. Without these guys we would not, I don’t think, have got to the Tour de France.”
Watching the team evolve
So who is he happy with? While some of the big names haven’t been riding as well as he expected, others have stepped up and have made a good impression.
“Louis Meintjes, Jacques Janse Van Rensburg, Youcef Reguigui, Tyler Farrar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Steve Cummings,” he answered. “They would be the main guys I am happy with. And Johan Van Zyl. He has been really impressive this year. He’s still young.
“And there’s Jaco Venter, until he broke his shoulder. I think the fact that both Adrien [Niyonshuti] and Songezo [Jim] seem to be upping their game as well [is encouraging]. To see those black African guys riding on the front for Edvald and these guys in snowy Norway and now the Tour of the Fjords is great to see. I think they are loving it.
“A lot of these guys went to races last year with no real leader because perhaps the leader would be riding somewhere else. But now every race they go to they have got a leader that can get a result, and I think they are riding well as a result of that.”
Meintjes has certainly been one of the standouts. He took the African cycling championship road race in February and then went on to place sixth in the Tour of Oman, win the final stage plus the overall in the Settimana Coppi e Bartali and net 11th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Still just 23 years of age, the former world under 23 silver medallist is one of the most promising riders on the squad.
Reguigui took a stage plus the overall in the Tour de Langkawi, Cummings won the Trofeo Andratx – Mirador d’Es Colomer , Boasson Hagen has returned from his injury to net second overall in the Tour of Norway plus two third places on stages in the Tour des Fjords and Sbargagli was third on a stage of the Presidential Tour of Turkey.
Smith says that Boasson Hagen is yet to approach his best condition but that his performances in the Norwegian races have been very encouraging. “He’s not yet got top form, but he has been sprinting well, he has been getting over climbs well. I think he is in a good place at the moment.
“These couple of races will help his morale, then he will be set for the Dauphine. The Tour de France will be a fresh start for him. He will go in there as a potential stage winner rather than just a support rider.”
As for Farrar, he has taken a number of placings this year including eight, eighth, fifth and fourth on stages of the Tour of California. Some might have seen those as missed opportunities, in terms of going for the win, but Smith is quick to stress that expectations of victory in those particular situations is not realistic.
“Like I said before, Tyler is not a sprinter,” he said. “Tyler has not dedicated training towards sprinting. He wanted to try to become a Classics rider. Okay, in this first year he found himself pretty much alone some times and had bad luck in some races. For example, in the first weekend in Omloop we had seven punctures, all within about 30 seconds. So that took us pretty much out of the race. Then we had a crash in the Dwars Door Vlaanderen which took three riders out.
“Tyler is not a sprinter and he will never be a sprinter. The situation we are in is we wanted visibility, so he stepped up in California. He was okay, he was fast in the last stage.”
It’s clear he has a lot of time for the American rider, and believes he can clock up strong performances in the future. “Tyler is a fighter, he is a good rider and he is good with the guys,” he said.
“A lot of people maybe put Tyler down, he doesn’t win races, he is not a sprinter. But he will be the first person to admit that. The biggest thing about Tyler is he helps and he motivates the African riders, which is a massive positive for the team.”
Asked as to when the Tour de France longlist will be announced, Smith states that he believes 11 riders will be named early next week.
At that point in time it may become obvious that one or two of the team’s well-known names are missing, or perhaps he will leave that decision until when the final nine riders are announced.
By the sounds of things, though, there may not be a huge amount of room in terms of available places.
“The thing is, with us making history with the first African team, we really have to look after the African riders. There will be a higher element of African riders in the team than not. It is only fair that happens.
“That is what ASO have pushed us towards as well. If we started on the line with nine black Africans, they would be more than happy.”
Things won’t quite be as pronounced as that but, from the sounds of things, there may only be four non-African riders on the squad.
“The thing is,” he explains, “everybody thinks you have to go there with your best riders. But we have got a story to tell. We have to look at the PR value, have to keep the sponsors happy.
“Some of the sponsors like performance, some of them like the story. We have to look at what is best for both.”
As for Goss, and perhaps Ciolek, there are no guarantees that they will be in the Tour. The final decision has yet to be made but it’s clear that past results won’t automatically lead to future selections.