After scoring a breakthrough victory at last year’s Vuelta a España, Danny van Poppel is aiming to follow in the footsteps of Tom Boonen and John Degenkolb in becoming a rider who can triumph both in bunch sprints and in the Classics.
“I want to do a bit of both,” the 22-year-old tells Cyclingnews at Team Sky’s recent training camp, where he is a fresh face after joining from Trek Factory Racing.
“A little bit like Degenkolb and Boonen, I want to win sprints and also to prepare for the Classics in the future. The experience is very important. I don’t think you can win a Classic at 22 but it’s a big goal to win a Classic and I’m working on the process to one day win a big one.”
The one-day races that catch Van Poppel’s eye include Milan-San Remo, which he describes as “a dream Classic”, but he also has his sights set on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. His debut at La Primavera will have to wait until at least 2017, but he is set to make his Flanders debut this season, followed by a return to Roubaix.
“I only did Roubaix last year and was placed 45th, three minutes behind Degenkolb,” he says before adding, with self-assurance: “It’s not bad for a first Roubaix.”
Despite that Vuelta stage win at the back end of last season, Van Poppel failed to come to an agreement with Trek for a contract renewal, and signed for Team Sky on a two-year deal. Though he was keen to play down the acrimony between himself and Trek hinted at in the Dutch press, he described Sky as a much better environment in which to develop at this early stage in his career.
“At Trek it was always around Fabian,” he says. “Here I have a chance. I have the chance to learn about the Classics. Not only the Classics – I’ll get some chances in the sprints.
“When you get an offer from Sky ... it doesn’t happen a lot, and I took this chance to be a better rider. It was not an easy decision because my brother [Boy] was there [at Trek] but I think this is better for me personally. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Van Poppel also talked of the influence of Servais Knaven, Sky's main Classics coach and a fellow Dutchman, in facilitating his development.
"I have had a lot of contact with him. He helps me, he lives close to me, it’s really nice to have somebody that speaks Dutch and can help me."
Van Poppel stepped up to WorldTour level with Vacansoleil at the tender age of 19, and was thrown in at the deep end, becoming the youngest rider to race the Tour de France since the second world war. He immediately caught the eye, too, with third place behind Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff on the opening stage.
The 2015 season, his second with Trek, didn’t get off to the best of starts, but he managed to build a sense of momentum that culminated in two stage wins at the Tour de Wallonie, and then a big one at the Vuelta, where he was also runner-up on the final day.
“I had a really bad season at the start, then it got better. I trained really good and everything, but I don’t know, sometimes in sport you don’t know what the reason is,” said Van Poppel.
“I felt that nearing the Tour I was going better and I wanted to show something, then I had three wins at the end of the season, so it was a good season in the end.”
Van Poppel wants to continue that progression into the 2016 season, which will get underway at Challenge Mallorca before he heads off to the Dubai Tour and then to the Three Days of West Flanders. After the Classics, a return to the Vuelta is on the cards, though much will depend on whether Chris Froome or Mikel Landa choose to go there with serious designs on the overall classification.
The Dutchman's main aim now is to gain as much experience as possible and, though results aren't the immediate priority, he has set himself a window of two years - the length of his contract - to make an impact.
“I hope to learn a lot," he said. "I have two years to score with Sky."