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In assessing the likely future stars of cycling, the white jersey competition in the Tour de France can be a very good place to start. Over the course of the past four decades years that best young rider classification has been won by some of the biggest names in the sport, including Francesco Moser, Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Nairo Quintana.
This year’s Maillot Blanc victor was the Orica BikeExchange rider Adam Yates, who finished fourth overall in Paris. However close behind was the South African Louis Meintjes, who placed second in that classification. He was just two minutes 16 seconds off Yates, and raced into Paris a fine eighth overall.
Meintjes has been regarded for many years as one of the big future hopes. He showed early promise when he took silver in the 2013 world under 23 road race championships. The following year he was best young rider and fifth overall in the Giro del Trentino; in 2015 he won a stage plus the overall classification in the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali plus a fine tenth overall in the Vuelta a España.
2016, though, was his best season yet. Racing after a switch to Lampre-Merida, Meintjes finished ninth in the Critérium du Dauphiné, eighth in the Tour de France and seventh in the Olympic Games road race.
While he didn’t get a race victory, his consistency and progress at 24 years of age point towards a big future. On Wednesday the South African spoke about key points of the season with CyclingTips, as well as revisiting a somewhat contentious team move last autumn, the new direction the Lampre team is heading in in 2017 and his future goals.
CyclingTips: When you look back at the year, how do you rate your season?
Louis Meintjes: I think it has been a good year. I really enjoyed it. Obviously the results weren’t bad. You always wish it could be more, it would be nice to win a race one day. But in general if I look back, going to a new team, learning the new culture, learning a lot of Italian – I am happy with how it went.
You had a nice result in the Dauphine with ninth there. That was probably important heading towards the Tour, to have done something like that…
Yes, it definitely gives you some confidence. Any kind of result is good. Any top ten in one of these WorldTour races is something you can walk away with, so…
You previously took tenth in the Vuelta just over a year ago, and then you went and got eighth in the Tour. That is nice progress – firstly, you have improved your best GC finish position. Secondly, the Tour is a much harder and bigger race…
Yes, it is good to do another GC result in a Grand Tour. Sometimes you do something once and you think, okay, maybe you were just lucky or maybe everything just worked out perfectly for you. But to do it twice and to do it in an even bigger event really confirmed it. That was something really nice.
When you look back at the Tour, what are the standout memories for you?
I don’t know… Well, it is really nice to get there and not get dropped [laughs]. A lot of the time you go to race after race after race and on the final climb you just see the guys disappear into the distance. To be able to be in that little group sprinting for the top of the climb is really nice.
You also rode the Tour last year but withdrew before the end. What happened?
I got a stomach virus. I started the stage and I managed to finish it, but afterwards I was seriously sick.
So it must have been good for the confidence to go back this year and complete what is the hardest race in cycling?
Yeah. It was really a goal just to complete it. The year before was quite a big disappointment to stop, especially so late in the Tour. I was still feeling pretty good and then getting sick and having to abandon is not something nice.
In addition to taking eighth overall, there was another nice indicator of your progress. You were fourth to the summit finish on stage 19. At a time when a lot of guys are fading, you had your strongest stage result a few days from the end…
Yeah, any kind of result is nice. Like you say, to be able to be still feeling pretty good late in the Tour is also something that gives me confidence for Grand Tours in the future. I can’t exactly remember the situation that day, but I think [Romain] Bardet was in the front and only [Alejandro] Valverde and [Joaquim] Rodriguez were ahead of me.
That day I remember I could see some of the guys in front of me were suffering. I basically just went in front so I wouldn’t get stuck behind the gap. But when we got the final, there was just no one left behind us and I ended up being fourth.
That was the last summit finish of the race, so again that must be great for the confidence to do that on the final uphill battle of the Tour…
The next stage was still a pretty hard mountain stage, but this was the last hill top. Hopefully it continues like that in future years…
What was it like racing into Paris and completing your first Tour? It must have been a big confidence boost for the future…
Yeah, once you finish it is nice. The cobbles aren’t all that pleasant, but once the race is over and you know there is not more stress, then it kind of a big relief. You can kind of start looking back at what has happened in the past month, and feel pretty happy if it has gone well.
You were second in the best young rider competition. Was that also important to you?
Adam [Yates] is a really good rider. So to be really close to him is something nice. You always want to try and win and try and be better, but being second young rider is, I think, a good sign for the future.
Exceeding expectations in Rio, below expectations in Spain
Following the Tour Meintjes travelled to Rio and competed in the Olympic Games, netting seventh there. He crossed the line in a group sprinting for fourth, just 22 seconds behind the gold medallist Greg Van Avermaet. He then returned to Europe and lined out in the Vuelta a España on August 20. That race was quieter than his tenth place of 2015. Meintjes spoke about the both events and explained why his Vuelta showing was more modest this time around.
You had a great ride in the Olympics, taking seventh. What was your reaction to that on the day?
I was pretty happy with it. First of all I never thought I would be going to the Olympics, and then being in the top ten was something really nice. But also it was a really good course for me. A lot of things played into my favour so I could be really lucky that I was able to pull off a good result.
Was it a big buzz there at the Games? What was the atmosphere like compared to other races?
It was more experiencing the whole national team environment which was something really nice. We are always racing in teams and stuff like that. You hardly ever have that [opportunity]…the South African mentality, the South African culture is quite something nice. It is something I actually don’t experience all that much. So when I went to the Olympics and you had this whole team vibe, it was actually something really special. It was something I really enjoyed.
You went on a did the Vuelta after that. The result, 40th overall, was quieter than your Tour ride. Was riding that race more about getting two successive Grand Tours in your legs for the future, or did you expect you would be challenging for GC there?
Well, last year I also did the Tour and then the Vuelta afterwards. I had a pretty good Vuelta. I thought let’s keep the programme the same and see if I can have another good Vuelta. But with all the travel to the Olympics and all the hype around the Olympics, by the time I finally arrived at the Vuelta this year I was kind of burned out.
I spoke to Movistar’s Rory Sutherland in the past few days about exactly that. He said that guys like Chris Froome who did the Tour, the Olympics and the Vuelta paid for it in the latter race, most likely because of the difficulty in going to another continent, racing there and then still being fresh for the Vuelta… In contrast, Nairo Quintana was fresh in the Vuelta as he missed Rio…
Yes. It was a little bit of jetlag, the extra travelling. Just the extra focus and stress of the Olympics, really, was a little bit more than I expected.
I went to the Vuelta and in the front two weeks I wasn’t feeling bad. I could be close to the front, but not quite to the same form as at the Tour. But then in the last week I could feel myself getting really empty. So that’s what happened.
Reflecting on MTN-Qhubeka disagreement plus new colours for 2017
In the autumn of 2015 Meintjes and his-then MTN Qhubeka team had a difference of opinion. He had been with the squad since 2013 and it believed he would continue to be part of the lineup in 2016. However he signed a deal with Lampre-Merida, something that Team Principal Douglas Ryder said came like a blow.
“It is like a gaping wound that I can’t seal thus far,” he told CyclingTips last October. “It was very hard for me, it was very hard for our coaches, it was very hard for our directors. It was very hard. We didn’t even see it coming – we had a commitment at the Tour de France that he would stay with the team. It was tough, it was very tough for us.”
Almost a year later, Meintjes revists the time and gives his own perspective on what happened. He also talks about another change of colours for 2017; namely, the new ownership of the Lampre-Merida squad, which becomes the Chinese-owned TJ Sport.
This time last year was probably a little stressful as you had the team change and some controversy. Well, perhaps controversy is a strong word, but MTN/Dimension Data had thought that you would stay. When you look back now, would you do anything different in how that transfer to Lampre-Merida came about?
Well, I am happy with the decision I made. Obviously it would have been nice if there wasn’t any controversy or people accepted it just straight away. But I knew from the start there were always going to be some people who were going to be unhappy. It is unfortunate that there was a kind of…there must have been a miscommunication or something. But I never really promised MTN that I would stay. I said they could send me their offers and I would make my decision off that.
I think somewhere they made the assumption that I would be staying, which wasn’t the case. So it was never the case that I told them I would go with them and then changed my mind afterwards. But they felt that is how it happened… I am sorry that is what they thought.
Since then, have things changed at all with Douglas Ryder and others? Have you had a chance to talk about it and to discuss it?
Well, before it was public I personally went to Doug and told him I was going to go to Lampre. We already had a talk at this time last year. Also some time afterwards we also came together again and chatted about everything. I don’t think he is completely happy, but there is no hard feelings or unspoken words. The relationship is still good.
I chatted to him last year. He was a little hurt at the time, but he also said that he would welcome you back in the future if that happened. Is that something that potentially, in five years time or whatever, that you wouldn’t rule out racing for the team again?
Definitely…the team that gives me the best opportunities is the one that I will end up with. It is always hard to make that decision because there are a lot of unknowns. But if I can look at MTN and see it as the best option, then I would definitely go back.
There is a change in direction for Lampre-Merida next season with new owners. How does that seem so far?
It sounds like there is going to be a lot of change. I am here on the other side of the world so I don’t think I am getting all of the information of all the changes that are happening. But there is obviously going to be a lot of change. I am actually waiting for the team training camp, which would be sometime in December, just to get all the new equipment, to have all the new meetings and stuff. To find out what is all going to be happening.
But most of the people I work with stay the same. I think things on the ground won’t change all that much, but the outward appearance is going to look quite different.
Where is the training camp? Is it over in China or somewhere else?
I think somewhere in Italy. The plan was to go to China, but just logistically with all the visas and a lot of the stuff happening, they just ended up having it in Italy. That’s the plan as it stands at the moment.
There were rumours at one point that you might go to the new Bahrain team. Was that something that could have been on the cards?
It looked like one of the options but when we heard about the Chinese buying over the team, we knew pretty much the option wasn’t going to be there.
Because you had a contract, and that it would transfer to the new setup…?
Yeah. In the start it kind of looked like Lampre was going to step down from the WorldTour. Then it would have been obvious to be moving somewhere else. Bahrain was definitely one of the options. But when the team continues pretty much the way it is, then I had to stay.
“The Tour de France is where you have to get your results”
About a month after the Vuelta a España ended, Meintjes left his European base of Lucca and headed back to his home town of Rustenberg in South Africa. He hadn’t been home since the spring and had many people to catch up with. Much of his time away from training was filled up with that. He also did gym sessions and has gradually returned to structured on-bike training, getting ready for what he hopes will be a big 2017 season.
Do you have any idea yet of your likely programme for next year?
I think it will most likely be the same. I am getting ready to start in Australia at the Tour Down Under. I think there might be one or two changes, but it will be 90 percent the same programme as this year.
So I guess that means the Tour is the big focus again?
Yes. I’m focussing on just getting results. If I can go to the Tour with some good form again, I am pretty sure I can still contest for the white jersey next year. So I will give it a go.
And I guess to try and build on eighth, to go higher next time?
Yes, for sure. There are so many unpredictable things but if everything goes perfectly, then a better result could be nice.
Do you like the route that has been unveiled for the race?
Well, from the information available, it doesn’t look like it is quite as good as this year, but it is still something that I can work with.
Longer term, what are your goals as a rider? Is it the Tour in particular where you want to shine?
Well, I think if you want to try and be the best cyclist in the world, then the Tour de France is where you have to get your results. So yes, just keep on going and try to aim for the Tour de France. But I don’t have any specific goals that if I don’t win the Tour before I retire that I will be upset [laughs]. I will just go there and use my opportunities. Not throw away anything.
If I can look back on my career at the end of it, if I can feel that I tried, that I have given it a good shot, then whatever comes with it is okay.
To do that, where do you need to focus on? You are lighter than a lot of the time trial specialists, so is that an area you need to work on?
Yeah. Well, there are definitely a million things that I can work with. But up until now, it has basically just been working on getting into the front group on the big climbs. I guess now that I am there, it would be obvious to start focussing on the next weak point.
So, definitely, time-trialing will be high on the list of the things that need to be improved.
You did have a nice stage 18 time trial in the Tour…you were ninth there. So that is encouraging…
Yeah. I have never been bad at time trialing. If you compare the results to riders similar to my size and my capabilities, I am always around them. But if you are competing against bigger guys like Chris Froome, then obviously you have to step up your game…