After a bruising opening week of the Tour de France that saw several pre-race favourites crash out, Louis Meintjes insists riders must possess nerves of steel in order to stay mentally focused on glory.
In one of the most brutal opening weeks in Le Tour’s 104-year history, BMC Racing’s Richie Porte broke his shoulder blade and pelvis after being catapulted off his bike on the descent of the Mont du Chat into the path of Quick Step Floors rider Dan Martin on Stage 9 on Sunday.
Movistar’s veteran Spaniard Alejandro Valverde broke his kneecap after careering into barricades on a very wet opening stage in Dusseldorf on July 1, while early Tour leader Geraint Thomas, of Team Sky, also saw his race ended on Stage 9 by a broken collarbone on the descent of Col de la Biche before Porte followed suit.
UAE Team Emirates rider Meintjes, at 5’ 8” tall and weighing in at a slight 59kg, is one of the smallest men on the professional cycling, but is hanging tough as week two got underway yesterday, placed 11th in the General Classification after a solid opening standza.
And he admits dealing with crashes, or their possibility, is part and parcel of Grand Tour racing.
“They are part of our sport and, nowadays, the equipment and the races organisers help us to ride in a safer way than in the past,” said the South African climbing specialist.
“Sometimes crashes happen and if you’re involved it is difficult to accept. Porte was my favorite for the final victory of the Tour, but unfortunately his race was over – that’s cycling.
“I head into the race bearing in mind that it’s fundamental to find the proper balance between the risk and the performance. Even if sometimes crashes are not linked to the risk which a rider takes, but more to the bad luck or fate.
“In this case, there’s nothing to do other than get back to the bike and trying to reach the finish line.”
The withdrawal of the likes of Porte and Valverde may well pave the way for Meintjes to achieve his pre-race goal of improving on a superb eighth placed overall in 2016, which really launched the Pretoria-native among cycling’s elite.
Yet, if he had it his way, the 25-year-old would be overtaking Porte, Valverde and the likes of race leader Chris Froome on his way to winning the Grand Boucle.
“There’s always a shadow of sadness when you read in the stage results list that some riders are out because of crashes,” he added.
“I would have preferred to overtake Alejandro, Richie or Geraint by using my legs. However, when a rider sets their pre-race aims, it’s necessary to take into account that some top contenders could face problems, like crashes, illnesses, mechanical problems.
“I prefer to keep my mind set on my performances and to try to achieve my personal goals.”
Meintjes is five minutes off the lead of Sky’s reigning Tour champion Froome and just over a minute outside the top 10, while he is also second in the race for the white jersey – awarded for the Tour’s best young rider – behind Orica-Scott’s Briton Adam Yates, who won the title last year.
Froome, Astana’s Fabio Aru (second place) and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana (ninth) are living up to their pre-race billing of being among the leading contenders, but Meintjes is pleased with his performances so far, having secured 11th, 12th and 14th placed finishes so far, and feels better is to come.
“All the GC contenders have achieved high level performances on the climbs, the quality was very high especially in Stage 7, where the GC contenders battled amongst themselves and the race pace was demanding,” said Meintjes.
“I have had pretty good legs until now and I feel my performances level can improve in the next two weeks.
“I feel things can always be done better. I always want to improve, even if I managed to achieve some solid performances. I always raced with the GC top contenders apart from Stage 9, which was a very demanding stage.
“However, I succeeded in limiting the gap and I even climbed up two places in the GC and now I’m close to the top 10.”
Coming into the race with a view to improving on last year’s impressive showing – Meintjes finished just under seven minutes behind winner Froome – the 2013 Under-23 UCI World Road Championships runner-up feels consistency rather than stage wins are key.
“There are no moments for recovering energy during the stages, you must be always focused on the race and must always have good legs for facing every situation of the race,” he said.
“I feel the best strategy is to be consistent every day and achieve solid performances. It’s fundamental to avoid any burnout and to exploit my energy in the best way.
“I’m very pleased with the team and how they are supporting me. I could not aim for better support by my teammates, during the race and also outside.
“The group spirit is great, it’s so nice to spend time with my teammates and the team staff and this is something very important for achieving top goals in the Tour.”
Apart from the withdrawals due to injury, one other high-profile exit to grab headlines was Peter Sagan after the Bora–Hansgrohe rider was ejected for elbowing Britain’s Mark Cavendish in the sprint finish to Stage 4.
Not being a sprinting specialist, Meintjes is not used to such frantic finishes, but feels the right decision was made.
He said: “I’m not a specialist of the sprints, I feel I never lived those kind of situations so for me it’s difficult to describe the dynamic of that action and to evaluate it.
“What is really important is that the judgment should be standard for all these kinds of situations, this will help a lot.”
Chris Froome and his Tour de France rivals had a welcome day off on Monday to lick their wounds and prepare for the next two gruelling weeks.
Sunday was a brutal, bruising and costly day for the Tour as a whole as five riders crashed out — including Australian contender Richie Porte and Froome’s team-mate Geraint Thomas — and seven more failed to make the cut-off time.
In one day, the Tour lost 12 riders having seen just five leave the race over the previous eight days.
With the Tour already losing Mark Cavendish to injury and Peter Sagan to disqualification, Frenchman Arnaud Demare finished outside the cut-off time on Sunday and will take no further part.
Marcel Kittel has already won three stages and will be favourite to claim two more in the next two days, his German compatriot Andre Greipel, and Norwegians Alexander Kristoff and Edvald Boasson Hagen perhaps the only two competitors who’ve shown any hope in previous sprints of beating him.
With 12 stages remaining, we take a look at the story so far.
Chris Froome has worn the maillot jaune for 35 of a possible 51 days of the Tour, dating back to 2015.
He donned the yellow jersey after Stage 5 and has steadily increased his advantage to 18 seconds. He’s been near-flawless up to now but the loss of Geraint Thomas as super domestique could leave him a little exposed.
Nairo Quintana’s Tour debriefs over the years have tended to follow the same trend: stop leaving it too late.
The Colombian, though, is again in a position where he’s allowing Froome to gain time – 2:13 at present – on him and while he should claw some back in the mountains a week from now, it could be too little, too late.
Quintana and Alberto Contador may be struggling, while Richie Porte’s Tour is over, but Froome’s duel with Astana’s Fabio Aru is bubbling up nicely.
The Italian launched a cheeky attack on Sunday while Froome had mechanical issues and while both played it down as a misunderstanding, the tension will surely only rise.
Porte’s crash was horrifying to see and robbed the Tour of one of their genuine GC contenders but came at the end of an opening phase of the Tour which also witnessed Thomas, Mark Cavendish, Alejandro Valverde and Ion Izagirre exit.
Stage 9 proved particularly brutal with 12 riders out of the race due to crashes and time cuts.
It’s sad to see such a giant of the Tour end this way but with each stage, the Spaniard’s powers are visibly slipping and he’s already 5:15 behind Froome.
Contador is stubborn, competitive and committed but it may not end up finishing this race, which increasingly looks like being his final Tour de France.
Before all Sunday’s mayhem on the way to Chambery, this was the story of the race so far as
world champion Sagan was sensational disqualified after Stage 4 for elbowing Mark Cavendish during as they sprinted to the line.
It was a big call by the UCI to kick the Slovakian out as he remains cycling’s biggest superstar.
Sagan’s departure has thrust other sprinters into the limelight, in particular Quick Step’s Marcel Kittel and FDJ’s Arnaud Demare. German Kittel has claimed two stages and Demare one with the Frenchman also runner-up the two occasions his rival won.
Demare’s Tour is over after he missed the time cut on Stage 9 but with Michael Matthews, Alexander Kristoff and Andre Griepel in good nick, the race for the Green Jersey is wide open.
A year on from twin brother Adam claiming the White Jersey as the best young rider of the tour, Simon Yates is following suit having led the Under-26 classification since Stage 5, while also sitting seventh overall.
UAE Team Emirates’ Louis Meintjes is his biggest threat but the South African is a full 2:58 behind and needs a big middle section of the race to keep the heat on the Brit.
Rigoberto Uran won a chaotic, crash-strewn stage nine of the Tour de France which saw Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte abandon the race while Chris Froome came home third to retain the yellow jersey.
Cannondale-Drapac’s Uran took victory in a photo finish ahead of Warren Barguil of Team Sunweb – one final twist of drama on a day that will live long in Tour history.
Team Sky’s Thomas suffered a suspected broken collarbone in a crash on the damp descent of the Col de la Biche, while BMC’s Porte went down in a frightening incident on the descent of the Mont du Chat – the last of seven categorised climbs on a brutal stage.
It all came down to a rare sprint finish between general classification contenders, with AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet fourth and Fabio Aru of Astana fifth.
With four bonus seconds on the line for third place, Froome extended his lead over Aru to 18 seconds. However, he has lost his rear-gunner as Thomas started the day second overall.
Bardet is up to third overall, 51 seconds down, four seconds ahead of former Team-Sky man Uran who catapulted up the standings with the win.
Irishman Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) was caught in the crash that ended Porte’s race and then came down again later in the descent, losing fourth place as he slipped to sixth, one minute and 44 seconds down, 18 seconds ahead of seventh-place Simon Yates of Orica-Scott.
The crashes were not the only cause of drama.
Froome suffered a mechanical problem on the Mont du Chat, the last of three hors categorie climbs on the day, and as the three-time Tour winner was calling for the team car Aru attacked in a clear breach of cycling’s protocol.
The other general classification contenders followed the Italian, but seemingly in order to remonstrate with him and tell him to wait.
Froome soon caught back up after a bike change but made his feelings known to Aru as he gave the Astana man a nudge after a corner.