Jan Bakelants had taken several strides toward returning to be the rider he once was before a crash at Il Lombardia in 2017 derailed his career and left him recovering from series injuries. The Belgian heads into the 2019 season healthy and excited about his prospects with Team Sunweb where he will bring expertise to the younger riders, and versatility in one-day races and Grand Tours.
"I look forward to 2019," Bakelants said in an interview with Sporza. "I am happy with this move and glad that I ended up here, and I'm hopeful about 2019."
Bakelants started his career with Topsport Vlaanderen in 2008 and then joined the WorldTour ranks with Omega Pharma-Lotto two years later. He spent two years at RadioShack, went back to Omega Pharma for one season before signing on with AG2R La Mondiale, where he had raced for the last four seasons.
His crash at Il Lombardia at the end of 2017 left him with two broken vertebrae and several broken ribs. He was still recovering heading into the 2018 season but began to make more significant strides mid-summer with sixth place at Grand Prix Cerami and respectable performances at the Tour de Pologne and Deutschland Tour. He ended his season with a series of top 20 results at Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec, Grand Prix de Wallonie and Binche-Chimay-Binche.
Team Sunweb announced in July that they had signed Bakelants to the team for the 2019 season, for which he expressed his gratitude. "It is not easy for a team to believe in someone who did not have many chances, it was not an easy year," he told Sporza.
Bakelants has not confirmed his schedule, but Team Sunweb will be counting on him to bring experience to the younger riders on the team, and strengths in the hilly one-day races and the Grand Tours. The team's manager Marc Reef also said that Bakelants would fill a captain role during races this season.
Bakelants told Sporza that the team's primary goal would be to help Tom Dumoulin win the Giro d'Italia, a race the Dutchman race he won in 2017. He placed second behind Chris Froome (Team Sky) last year. Bakelants did not confirm whether he will be part of the Giro d'Italia team, but he said that he has a lot of respect for Dumoulin and is looking forward to working with him during the year.
"[Tom Dumoulin's] main goal will be the Giro this year, and I am looking forward to it because he is a leader that I certainly believe in," Bakelants said. "When we did not ride together, I was a bit of a fan of him, I like his Dutch sobriety, but he has the quality to win big races, and with the Giro in 2017, he has already done that.
"I hope that we can also make it happen this year in the Giro; that he can win a second time in Italy. I do not consider it impossible that he will also participate in the Tour for the podium."
While Bakelants heads into the season hopeful of a fresh start with a new jersey, teammates and goals, he said the most important thing he is concerned with is his health.
"Health is the most important thing, it seems like a cheap cliché, but unfortunately I have too often seen the other side of the coin to counter this."
Bakelants is expected to make his season debut at the Tour de la Provence in the south of France. The four-day race is scheduled for February 14-17.