In 2014, just as ENVE was looking for a special team to sponsor, one with a true purpose beyond results, Team Dimension Data principal Doug Ryder asked his riders which wheels they wanted to ride the following season. ‘ENVE,’ they told him. It was a perfect match and a true partnership was born, one that transcends even the racing success and critical product development. Now, as the team embarks on a new challenge to place an African rider on the podium of the Tour de France by 2020, we take you inside the team throughout the winter to find out how they’re working towards that goal. Stay tuned for new stories every week.
Slight are the shoulders that will carry the weight of all Africa. Louis Meintjes returned to Dimension Data for Qhubeka to be heralded as the rider on whom all hopes of a Tour de France podium are being pinned, the hopes of this team, of South Africa, of the entire continent. For the 25-year-old, all 5’8″ and 130lb of him, that’s a heavy burden to bear.
“There’s definitely pressure, but I’m really comfortable with it,” Louis tells us. “This team understands that I’m human and that this is also my dream. If I do everything I can, that’s all that’s expected of me. That takes the pressure off a bit.”
He sounds genuine, with no hint that he’s trying to kid either us or himself. Then again, our interview took place in November, at the team’s first gathering of the off-season in Cape Town, sat in the shade by the pool of the plush Southern Sun Cullinan Hotel, sipping cool drinks in warm weather. If Louis wasn’t comfortable here, he’d be in trouble. The stress levels are certain to ramp up as May approaches.
Yes, May, not July. Although the team’s new stated mission is to podium at the Tour de France by 2020, and Louis is the man hired for that job, his first crack at it won’t come this year. Dimension Data is committed to helping Mark Cavendish achieve the outright stage win record so the Tour squad in July will be dedicated to that goal. Instead, Louis will target the podium of the Giro d’Italia in May, fully supported, with an opportunity for both him and the team to learn the GC ropes away from the particular intensity of the Tour.
“You can imagine how much flak we’re going to take next year, as an African team, not putting Louis in the Tour de France,” Doug Ryder, the team principal, told us. “That’s why we’ve already announced [in November] that he’s going to do the Giro, because we want people to understand that this is part of a plan.”
“By welcome happenstance, it turned out that the Giro’s percoso would be as immaculately tailored for Louis’s talents as the Tour’s parcours is singularly not”
At that point in time, the Tour de France route had been unveiled but that of the Giro d’Italia had not. By welcome happenstance, it turned out that the Giro’s percoso would be as immaculately tailored for Louis’s talents as the Tour’s parcours is singularly not. The peloton chasing the yellow jersey will face a team time trial and a stage inspired by Paris-Roubaix with 20km on cobbles – these will be sources of great stress to GC contenders, and would be a huge ask of Africa’s team and its new star, but Cavendish and his lead-out train will be able to focus on simply getting through each test safely, unconcerned about time losses.
The Corsa Rosa is a different beast. It features no fewer than eight summit finishes, including the mighty Zoncolan. What’s more, the opening time trial in Jerusalem is on a technical city course that won’t give the specialists sufficient space to build a head of steam. Although there is a purer 35km chrono in the last week, it’s followed by three savage days of climbing. In short, it’s a fantastic opportunity. He must be excited, we suggest.
“Yes. It’s going to be a new experience and challenge, my first time at the Giro. I definitely wanted to try the Giro at least once in my career and this is the perfect year to do it, with Cav going for Tour stages.
“Most of the stage races I’ve done so far have been super controlled by Sky and this might be a race that’s a bit more lively and unpredictable. In the past they’ve not always had so much control over the Giro and that creates opportunities. I can’t say if that suits me better or not, but it definitely opens an opportunity to get a victory. When races are really controlled, you rarely see guys make mistakes, but in the Giro you see a lot more bold moves end up working.”
Such a swashbuckling style hasn’t been Louis’s calling card up to now. His three Grand Tour top-10s were ground out by minimizing losses, hanging on to the leaders for as long as possible in the mountains. Some race fans may prefer to see riders attacking recklessly for the sheer entertainment of it, but it’s hardly a wise approach, even if you’re confident of your superiority. Mindfully avoiding time losses can take a rider all the way to a Tour de France podium, as it did last year for Rigoberto Urán.
“Right now, Louis knows himself well,” his coach, Trevor Court, tells us a few hours later. “He knows when he’s in control and when he’s not. He’s a rider who limits his losses, which can be a negative or positive. He knows that if he rides his own tempo [on a climb] he might lose 20 seconds but if he tries to hold the tempo of Quintana, for instance, then he might [pop and] lose five minutes. He’s always been very calculated.”
“Summit finishes are the fulcrums of Grand Tours and the Giro climaxes with three successively. A pure climber such as Louis should be in his element”
But there may come times when it will be necessary to attack, for instance on the mountain stages in the last week of the Giro, where it isn’t hard to imagine that there might be a podium up for grabs and time to make up following the flat TT. No one should doubt that such a weapon is within Louis’s arsenal.
“At Coppa Bartali in 2015,” Trevor recalls, “he attacked with 40km to go and rode solo all the way to the finish. That’s how he won his first stage race in Europe.”
Similar heroic feats are even harder to pull off in Grand Tours, where rivals and their super-domestiques will be watching like hawks. In the decisive moments of three-week races, seconds are stolen by sheer force; when it’s time to lay their cards on the table, the rider with the most watts-per-kilo wins. Summit finishes are the fulcrums of Grand Tours and the Giro climaxes with three successively. A pure climber such as Louis should be in his element. But is there a particular sort of climb that particularly entices him?
“Normally, I tend to go slightly better on the stages that are hard all day, something with a few climbs leading up to the final splitting point, and not a 200km flat run to a 5km climb where it’s a sprint to the top. I’d prefer something that’s hard all day, with everyone getting worn out, and then to finish on top of a climb.”
Italy says, ‘You’re coming to the right race, my friend.’ As if Monte Zoncolan wasn’t hard enough, on stage 14, the Giro peloton will arrive having already ridden over four categorized climbs. The race-deciding summit finishes of stages 19 and 20 are, likewise, preceded by multiple massive mountains. Last summer’s Olympic Road Race in Rio was a good example of the Pretorian’s durability.
“When you look back over my career, I’ve always been put in situations a bit too early. I think it toughens you up”
“Yeah, it was a long, hard race all day. When everyone was worn out and the final splitting point came on the climb, I was one of the better guys left. I guess I’m just good at hanging on. I’ve had a lot of practice. When you look back over my career, I’ve always been put in situations a bit too early. I think it toughens you up.”
Even so, Louis might like to be careful what he wishes for. While the hardest stages can function as a catalyst for the selectivity of a summit finish by tiring the contenders, it also tires their team-mates and it’s only the strongest (often richest) teams which have such talented riders in support roles that they can survive a very demanding stage to help their leader into the finale. At the last two Tours de France, Louis was usually one of the first team leaders to be isolated, so it was very much in his interest for a stage to be hard so that his rivals came to the finish also having to fend for themselves.
“That’s definitely an area that can be improved compared to my last two years [with UAE-Emirates]. The team support was always there, but they didn’t have enough top caliber guys to help me. The guys who went with me to the Tour gave 100% but it’s a lot to ask of a team-mate to hang in there when Sky have Michał Kwiatkowski pulling for Froome.”
Right now, it’s unknown whether or not Louis will face that particular problem at the Giro d’Italia. Chris Froome is currently waiting on a resolution to an Adverse Analytical Finding for salbutamol from stage 18 of the Vuelta a España. While the case is ongoing, he has maintained his intent to target the Giro and attempt to win all three Grand Tours in succession. Whichever way that case goes, next year, when it’s planned that Louis will make his first bid to stand on the Tour podium in Paris, he will have to face the full force not only of Sky but all the world’s best.
In 2016 he was just 2:30 off the podium, then it was six minutes last year with no less of a performance on his part. With the Tour de France goal firmly set, and 2020 not so far away, what sort of progression does he feel needs to be made by the team – support both on the road and off it – and by himself?
“While there’s a lot of talk about the Tour podium being Team Dimension Data’s new mission, it’s also what Louis has dreamt of since childhood”
“I’m not ever gaining time in the TTs, so I can definitely work on limiting my losses there. I doubt I’m ever going to turn into a Tony Martin time trial machine, but I need to lose less time to the likes of Froome. Also, I’ve always lost some time on flat stages which don’t really suit me, but I think Dimension Data have shown that they can be really good in the wind on those flat stages so hopefully we can eliminate that one stage where I’ve always lost a minute or two and then look at maybe gaining time in the mountains.”
As for the team, “they’re always trying to improve and hopefully we can make some breakthroughs, learn together, and find some smarter ways of doing stuff.”
That search is being conducted with real intent. Team coach Dr Jonathan Baker is running a new ‘blue sky’ project. “It’s very conceptual,” he told us, “taking a scientific overview of everything we do in the team. It could be anything: ergonomics, heat, altitude, equipment…” We have an interview with Baker coming soon to ENVE.com.
To have that level of support behind him must be incredibly exciting. While there’s a lot of talk about the Tour podium being Team Dimension Data’s new mission, it’s also what Louis has dreamt of since childhood.
“I’m really fortunate to be in this position. Hopefully we can do something that inspires South African kids and really helps the charity. It’s amazing how this team reaches people. When we come back here [to SA] so many people come up to us to say they can’t wait to see us race next year.
“I was only three when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. It would be really amazing if cycling – this team – could do even a small part of the good for this country.”