Sometimes the way forward isn’t the most direct route.
The news that Wouter Wippert was stepping back from the WorldTour despite two stage wins and the points classification victory in the recent Tour of Alberta might have come as a surprise to some. However the Dutch sprinter says the decision was a deliberate one.
Wippert has competed with the Cannondale-Drapac team for the past two seasons, moving to the WorldTour after two successful years with the Australian Drapac Pro Cycling team.
And while he says he could have stayed with Cannondale, and could have earned more with other teams, he believes the move down to the Pro Continental level is the best option right now.
Roompot – Nederlandse Loterij is, he feels, simply the right step at this point in time.
The decision is evocative of Warren Barguil’s move to the French Pro Continental squad Team Fortuneo-Oscaro. For both riders, simply sticking in the WorldTour because it is the top level is not necessarily the correct decision.
Wippert explained this thinking in a recent sit-down interview in Girona, Spain.
“I was able to stay with Cannondale, they made me an offer,” he told CyclingTips. “But I didn’t get the chances I want. I hope I am going to get them now. I think I have almost 50 race days at the moment…not very much.
“This [new] team is giving me the chance to race a lot. To do almost all of the races I did this year, plus the additional ones. So that will make more chances, and more chances give more opportunity to win. That is the biggest reason behind it. Of course I wanted to stay WorldTour. But this [Cannondale] was just not the option I wanted.”
For many riders, making it to the WorldTour is the ultimate aim. The biggest teams in the biggest races: the attraction of that series is obvious. But with bigger teams come more top riders, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
If the team’s goals align with your speciality, great. Particularly so if you have the form early on to underline your worth. But if there are other priorities, it’s possible to fall through the gaps.
Hence a small number of race days for Wippert, and a related difficulty in building and keeping top race form.
“I won a lot with Drapac,” he says, reflecting on results such as his stage win in the 2015 Tour Down Under plus victories in the Tour de Taiwan. “Then I came to this team. The first season was actually really good. Then this season I just didn’t get the races I had to do. They only race WorldTour and it is hard to always step in at the highest level and score immediately there.
“Sometimes it is better to go to a race a little bit lower, get some confidence and then go to the higher level. That was hard this year and it was for me time to move on.”
So why does he feel he didn’t get more opportunities this season? Well, there are two factors. The first is falling ill in January and needing to take a break from training. That affected his momentum and put him on a back foot early on.
“You miss everything. You are just not good enough,” he says of that situation. “That’s the difference between winning and getting 10th or 20th.”
With the lack of results comes an erosion of team trust. Winning early on is a powerful reminder of what you can do. Missing out has the opposite effect, and makes it far easier for teams to select or to prioritize others.
The second factor in a lack of race days is Cannondale-Drapac’s priorities. Wippert believes that having a bunch sprinter at races simply wasn’t that high on the list of aims.
“The team is more focused on GC, I think,” he says. “For example, the Grand Tours…the Tour was pretty clear with Uran. The Giro, they really wanted to go for the climbers. And in the Vuelta, there wasn’t a lot of sprinting going on.”
Taking a gamble in walking away
Frustrated by his early season, Wippert set about putting things right. Third on stage two of the Hammer Race in Limburg was followed by a close second in the Dutch national road race championships, fifth in the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic and seventh on stage one of the Binckbank Tour. Second in the Veenendaal Veenendaal Classic continued the strong trend and reminded Cannondale-Drapac of his worth. However he had already decided to leave.
“I actually made my decision after nationals that I was going to move on,” he said. “After that, we started to look at other opportunities. Roompot – Nederlandse Loterij was the best one that came out.
“I had talked to a couple of other teams. Financially they were sometimes better but, purely looking at the opportunities I am going to get, this team was best. It is racing almost every race that is possible in Europe. That gives you the most opportunities and that was for me, for next year, the most important thing.”
His display in the Tour of Alberta showed he was gathering momentum. It also put him in a strong frame of mind looking towards 2018. He won stage two, was second the following day and triumphed on stage four. He also took the points classification in the event.
Topping the podium again was a relief and gave him a big motivation boost. That wasn’t just due to the wins, however, but also due to the circumstances behind the victories.
“I went to the race and everyone knew it was not a big, big lineup,” he said, referring to the teams that were there. “But there were still some solid sprinters. For me personally…you finish the race, you win, that’s nice, but then you look at the file and then you see your power.
“If you look at that and see that for the whole week you hit your numbers, if they are higher than they have been for the last couple of months, then that is good for me. I am more happy with that than with anything else.”
Wippert expected to be sent to the Italian semi-Classics after Alberta, and told CyclingTips that he was looking forward to building on his Alberta success there. However the team ultimately didn’t send him, reinforcing his point about not getting enough racing with Cannondale-Drapac.
Notwithstanding the lack of competition, though, he has been able to keep in good condition by motorpacing and multiple sprint efforts. “My condition is very good at the moment,” he said in recent days. “It’s actually better then it has been for a long time, so I’m looking forward to racing again.”
His next race, and his final event of the year, is the WorldTour Tour of Guangxi in China. “I’m fully focussed on closing out my years with Cannondale-Drapac with a bang,” he said.
Room to improve
Wippert is not a major household name. He’s known to those who regularly follow the sport, but he would himself accept that he’s not at the same level as Cavendish, Kittel, Griepel or the other big sprinters. But, at 27 years of age, he has time on his side.
He knows that racing regularly is key to improving his form and, consequently, his results.
“The goal next year is if there is going to be a sprint, I am going to be in it,” he says. “Everyone understands you can’t win every sprint you do, but the goal is to be there every sprint. To show that when it is a sprint stage, I am on it.
“That is going to be the most important thing. When that works out, the win will come at some point. Hopefully that will be early in the season, to get the ball rolling, to get the positive vibe in the team.”
He’s clear on the importance of momentum, of the success that success itself brings.
“You see it this year with Cannondale. Rolland wins in the Giro and the pressure is gone,” he explained. “You can see what happened in the Tour de France [with Rigoberto Uran]. Whereas last year it went the opposite way. The Giro really didn’t go well, and then everything had to happen in the Tour de France. And they didn’t get what they wanted.
“This year was the perfect example. The vibe was good, the riders were motivated and the team just works better. That is definitely a goal for next year – to get those chances and to try to win them.”
If things go to plan, Wippert will continue in the same vein as his Alberta performances and land stage wins in China. Whatever happens, though, he’s convinced that some big results lie ahead in 2018.
“I think I can definitely make another bit step this winter, to keep continuing to work like I do now,” he says. “And then next year with a bigger race programme, I hope I can make the next step. Instead of racing 45, 50 days a year, bring it up to 85. That is a big step. And hopefully I can see results from that, how the body reacts to more racing.
“We will see. I definitely don’t feel like I am at my limit, that is for sure. So I guess that is a good thing.”
Defining a dream
Wippert’s optimism that a bigger number of race days will help him progress originates in part from a change in approach this season. Last February he stopped working with his previous coach and instead began working with Ken Vanmarcke, Cannondale-Drapac directeur sportif and brother of Sep Vanmarcke.
He told Wippert that he wanted to ramp up the amount of hours he spent on the bike, increasing his training load by six to seven hours per week.
Unsurprisingly, Wippert had doubts at first.
“I was like, ‘are you crazy?’ That is what I said to him in the first two or three weeks when he planned my training,” he smiled. “‘Do you want to kill me?’ And that happened to me after the first month. I couldn’t move any more on the bike. An hour felt like six hours.
“Then we took two weeks off, totally relaxed, and then we started again and slowly built into that system. That worked out really well. Since June, July, I can handle the load that he gives me in training. Everything is up now, the power numbers and the efforts I can do in training, so that is good to see.”
Looking to next season and his new start with Roompot – Nederlandse Loterij, he knows what he wants from 2018.
“I just hope that I can make the step next year to get the confidence back that I had two years ago,” he says. “To start winning races again. To move slowly up to the highest level. Of course you want to win the biggest races [right away], but every win is a win. I want to bring the level of the wins slowly higher and higher.”
Longer term, he has a very clear target in mind.
“My dream is still to win Milan-San Remo. It is not going to be easy, but things don’t have to be easy, sometimes.
“I’ve never done it before, but I think it is maybe the most beautiful one-day race for a sprinter to win. I’ve done Roubaix twice now and kind of like it now, even though I hated it when I did it as a junior, an under 23. I was always unlucky – flat tires, crashes, those kind of things.
“Not many sprinters can win Roubaix, Flanders. It came slowly into my mind that San Remo would be the one Classic that I would love to win. It’s one of the five monuments, it has something special, but it is doable for a sprinter to win. And I like to race in Italy, so that is another thing.”