The Gorilla’s new habitat
André Greipel surprised the cycling world last transfer season when he decided to drop down to a second division for 2019, despite still receiving interest from WorldTour teams. Why pass up the guaranteed race invites afforded to a WorldTour pro, or the profile associated with riding for a top-division team?
“Why not?” Greipel responded with a smile when asked about his transfer last month at the Tour of Oman.
It may take some time for cycling fans to get used to picking out Greipel in the bunch this season. After eight long and successful years with the Lotto Soudal organization, the German sprinter is sporting brand new kit in 2019, riding for French Pro Continental outfit Arkéa-Samsic.
Even on the back slope of his career, Greipel is having fun taking a few risks. Joining a second-division team fits the bill. He’ll have more opportunities in his much-loved one-day races, a loyal leadout man at his side, and a team that puts its faith in him.
The unexpected move came about after Greipel’s relationship with Lotto Soudal began to sour last year. The team ultimately signed Caleb Ewan to lead the way in the sprints. Meanwhile, Arkéa set to work early convincing Greipel to come aboard for 2019. The French team showed interest in signing him as early as last April.
“They [Arkéa-Samsic] always gave me the impression that they really wanted me as a rider, and as a person, as a human as well,” Greipel told CyclingTips.
“It would have been nice also to stay with Lotto Soudal but I never really had the impression that I was part of the plan any more.”
At 36, Greipel is no spring chicken, but he has still delivered results worthy of a WorldTour rider over the past few seasons. He counts 11 Tour de France stage wins to his name in his career, most recently in 2016. He finished as highly as third on a Tour stage last year.
It’s a track record deserving of a WorldTour gig, but Greipel had other plans in mind when transfer season rolled around. Although a fierce competitor and an imposing figure on the bike, Greipel can be mild-mannered and easy-going too, and he hasn’t forgotten how to enjoy racing bikes for a living. A move to Arkéa-Samsic represented an intriguing new challenge for the veteran speedster.
“In your career, you have to make choices. I wanted to help a team,” he said. “The vision [at Arkéa] is to step up to the WorldTour level. I really would like to be part of it, to help with my experience, so the team can keep growing.”
Embarking on that new adventure meant diving into a completely new environment. The standards for success are different for a team hunting wildcard invites. There are differences in team culture and mentality in going from a Belgian team to a French one. And, of course, Arkéa is a thoroughly French-speaking squad.
Greipel says he has that part down, at least.
“Everybody was quite surprised that I spoke so well in French when I arrived,” he said.
From an organizational and professionalism standpoint, Greipel says he has not noticed any differences so far between Arkéa and his years at the WorldTour level. Arkéa is, after all, a team that has ridden four of the last five Tours de France, a team that also employs another WorldTour-level talent in French climber Warren Barguil. The biggest thing separating Arkéa from the WorldTour at this point is results.
Greipel is hoping his arrival is part of an evolution on that front. He was quick to snag his first win with his new team at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in January. He’s looking to add to that in higher-rated events as the season goes on.
Having German veteran Robert Wagner to lead him out in the sprints this year should help.
Greipel called Wagner, a friend and former teammate, the day he signed with Arkéa, to see if his compatriot might join him in his new Pro Continental digs. After six seasons as a reliable lead out man with LottoNL-Jumbo, Wagner had been planning to retire at the end of 2018. He said he’d sleep on it.
A day later, Wagner made up his mind to postpone retirement, and join Greipel in taking up the new challenge.
“We raced together for a long, long time. We were colleagues and teammates in the junior category, we had the same trainer,” Wagner told CyclingTips. “I said, ‘It would be great to race one or two more years, to make the circle round.’ And now, we are in France.”
Wagner will play a critical role in the lead out Arkéa is building to set Greipel up this year. That train will be a work in progress throughout the season; recent iterations of the Arkéa team have not had a sprinter of Greipel’s caliber on the roster, so the team has growing to do if it’s to be up to the task of leading out Greipel at the Tour de France this summer. He acknowledges he may have to do some work on his own in sprint finales for the time being as teammates with less experience than Wagner rack up the race days with sprints as a central focus.
“You can train whatever you want in training camp but if you don’t have the experience and the knowledge in the race, it doesn’t bring you further,” Greipel said. “You have to get to know the riders in the race, what they are good at, what they are able to do, the risks they are willing to take. It will take some time, but maybe not so long I think.”
Stage race sprint days are not the only thing on Greipel’s radar, however. He may be known for his effectiveness in the bunch kicks, but he harbors a deep love of racing on the pavé in the spring. Roubaix is a big objective for Greipel in 2019.
“It’s the time of the year where I can ride like I am character-wise,” he said. “As a rider, I really like to be attentive to making the race hard.”
In recent years, Greipel made a name for himself digging deep in the cobbled one-days, making splits and forcing selections on cobbled sectors where other pure speedsters might falter. With Lotto Soudal, he often played second or third fiddle to other classics specialists, but he has enjoyed his own success on the pavé as well. Even at age 36, he still hungers to improve on what he’s accomplished there thus far.
“I was seventh two years ago in Roubaix and I felt like there was more to gain on that day,” he said. “You need luck in that race.”
The team does, at least, have some big invites in hand. The ASO announced Friday that Arkéa had made the selection for the Tour de France. That was not a given, and with so many Pro Continental squads vying for invites across the calendar, Greipel and his teammates will be under pressure to perform in the coming months, so that Arkéa can keep getting those invites for the remainder of the season and into next year. They know it.
In a way, the uncertainty is part of the adventure Greipel has embraced in signing on with a new team after all those years with Lotto.
“It’s a new experience,” he said. “For sure, you feel the pressure, the management gets nervous, but in the end we can only do our best. We train, we try our best in the races, and hopefully we can get better results soon than we have so far. Then, it’s not in our hands.”