The Santos Tour Down Under is just about to start and for many riders it will be the first race they’ve done in the colours of a new team. Among these riders is promising youngster Louis Meintjes, who made a much-talked-about switch from MTN-Qhubeka to Lampre-Merida at the end of last season.
Dane Cash caught up with the South African ahead of his first race for the Italian outfit, to find out about Meintjes’ move to the new squad and what he’s expecting from the TDU and the year ahead.
On the heels of his first ever Grand Tour top 10 at the 2015 Vuelta a España, Louis Meintjes is gearing up for what he hopes will be a successful follow-up campaign this season. And he’s doing it in the distinctive colours of a new team, Lampre-Merida.
After spending his first three years in the pro peloton as a highly touted homegrown prospect at MTN-Qhubeka, Meintjes made the surprising announcement last September that he would be joining Lampre in 2016.
With the first month of winter training alongside his new squadmates under his belt, the 23-year-old from Pretoria, South Africa will make his Lampre racing debut at the Tour Down Under. The Australian race should show how well his first off-season with the new team has gone.
“I’m trying a bit of a new training style, and in training I was getting really good,” Meintjes told CyclingTips after arriving in Australia.
The new off-season training plan involves “a little bit more intensity and a little bit less hours.” Meintjes expects his altered approach will have him better prepared for a fast start to his racing campaign.
“Last year I started the season quite slow just building a really big base and trying to prepare for the Tour de France, and we saw that even after the Tour I kept my form quite well,” he said. “So I decided to try to be on form a little bit earlier this year, because I’ve seen I can keep the form quite long, so why not start using it a little bit earlier in the season?”
Meintjes, the winner of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali and the 10th-place finisher at the Vuelta a España last year, is just one of a collection of strong riders on Lampre’s Tour Down Under line-up. Diego Ulissi, another potential GC threat and a former stage winner, will be there, as will sprinter Marko Kump. Meintjes expects the team’s approach to the race to be decided out on the road.
“We will kind of just go with the flow,” Meintjes said. “Because it’s the first race of the year, everyone is a little bit unsure of how they are going. And we also have to see how everyone copes with the heat and the jet lag.
“We’ll look at the first two days, see who is feeling better and end up riding for him”.
A little over a month removed from his first team training camp, Meintjes is feeling comfortable in his new surroundings at Lampre-Merida.
“The guys are all super nice. Their English is all pretty good — better than I expected, that was nice! They’ve got a really relaxed vibe in the team.
“So far I’m really happy with my decision to join Lampre.”
At the same time, he is quick to point out that there’s no bad blood with his old team, MTN-Qhubeka (now Dimension Data).
“It’s not really something that I was motivated to leave,” Meintjes said. “Lampre showed real interest, and it’s always nice to go somewhere that you feel someone really wants you.”
The security of riding for a team that already had a WorldTour license helped too.
“At the time when I made the decision, MTN was still Pro Continental and I would have liked to have the security of knowing my road schedule in advance and going to all the biggest races,” he said. “So that was one of the big things of going to Lampre.”
Meintjes will square off against his former team for the first time at the Tour Down Under, but he is looking at the event as a chance to catch up with friends.
“Before, when I raced with MTN, I was always competing against other South Africans anyway back home in South Africa. So I don’t think it’ll be all that strange or anything major. I already saw the guys and met them and said hello, and caught up with what I missed. So that’s been good.”
After the Tour Down Under, Meintjes will head to the South African national championships before his campaign in Europe gets underway. For now, he expects to kick that campaign off in Paris-Nice, with races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Critérium du Dauphiné as other stops along the road to a hoped-for return to the Tour de France. Illness forced Meintjes to abandon his first Tour bid in 2015 with four stages to go.
As a natural climber, Meintjes sees stage races and Grand Tours in particular as his main goals, so it would be ideal if he could make it all the way to Paris this time around. And he notes that he has room to improve in some areas, particularly as a time trialist, to be a more consistent Grand Tour contender going forward. Still, at age 23, he has plenty of time to continue to grow into what he hopes will be a role as a podium contender at the three-week races.
“If I’m not on the podium [of a Grand Tour] this year, I won’t be disappointed. That’s what I’m aiming for, that’s what I’m working for — if it happens then that’s absolutely great. If it takes another two, three, or even four years, then that’s just how it is.”
Meintjes says that Lampre is on-board with that plan as well, prepared to support him as he tries to grow into a top GC contender. In the meantime, Meintjes will try to find his place on a roster that does include plenty of other talented climbers. The Tour Down Under should provide a nice opportunity for him to get acquainted with racing alongside some of those new teammates.
More than that, it will be a chance to get off to a running start as he attempts to follow up the best year of his career with another successful season.