The most successful sprinter in the 2016 Tour de France, André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), warned his rivals he is back in good shape and ready to do battle in the Giro d’Italia after an injury-blighted first half of the season.
Never one for hyperbole either in victory or defeat, ears in the Lotto-Soudal pre Giro press conference pricked up when Greipel, categorically described his 2016 spring campaign as “the worst since I started racing as a bike rider.”
“Now I’ve got good race condition, and all I need to be is lucky, not to be on the ground,” the 33-year-old added.
Following two early wins in the Mallorca Challenge in January, Greipel looked set for a great year. But a little over a week later in Portugal Greipel crashed badly in stage 4 of the Volta ao Algarve. “I thought I had broken one rib, and we got that cured,” he told Cyclingnews on Wednesday. “But then for Paris-NIce, I was a bit too optimistic and opted to take part. I did one sprint, I was third, but I knew immediately afterwards there was something still wrong and we found after further examinations that in fact it was three more. So that made four broken ribs.
“That meant I had to spend more time off the bike, again. I had to just do a different race program. Of course I crashed in the Tour of Turkey too, which didn’t make things easier” - after winning a stage, nonetheless - “but I could at least race the five stages I wanted, and I got the form I needed to come here and be ready to race.”
It’s perhaps understandable that Greipel should be keen to return to the Giro d’Italia whatever. After racing the Italian Grand Tour for the first time in five years in 2015, taking a stage win - the third of his career - and racing the first two weeks, Greipel went on to his most successful Tour campaign ever, winning four bunch sprint stages last July, including on the Champs Elysées. This time round, the German says there are “perhaps six or seven opportunities” for wins in this year’s Giro d’Italia, which sounds like a lot. But with up to 10 potential rivals, including fellow-German Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) on the Giro's starting grid in Appeldoorn, it will certainly be no easier for the Lotto-Soudal leader to triumph than in 2015 and perhaps harder.
Greipel also will be racing with a very different leadout train to his usual series of support riders in the Giro d’Italia, with both Marcel Sieberg and Greg Henderson, missing from the action. “This must be the one race of the year where Sieberg doesn’t race with Andre” the Lotto-Soudal press officer said, half-jokingly, during the press conference. Instead, Jurgen Roelandts will be the last leadout man for Greipel in the Giro d’Italia.
“It’s different, normally it’s Marcel and Greg just in front of me,” Greipel told Cyclingnews. “Greg has had a lot of injuries this year so he had some difficulties to show that he can be up there. But I’ve worked a lot of times with Jurgen, he’s a great leadout man too. And with [team-mates] Adam Hansen and Pim Ligthart, we’ve another two really strong guys to set me up for the sprints.”
In the past, Greipel has had no problems adapting to the somewhat different atmosphere and terrain that a foreign start for a Grand Tour like the Giro d’Italia in the Netherlands provides. When the Vuelta a España began in Holland in 2009, for example, he won stage 3 into Liege - “although that’s Belgium,” he pointed out with a slight smile.
“For sure, it’s a different kind of race when the Giro or Vuelta goes abroad, somewhere like Holland there’s a lot of road furniture, for example, and the whole way the stages are raced is very different to in Italy or France or Spain or whatever.
“For the countries that are hosting the Giro, though, it’s a really special event with a warm welcome and for the riders that makes racing there really special, even more than when you’re in the usual country for whichever Grand Tour.” There are other advantages, too. His family, living in nearby Cologne, can have a rare opportunity to see him race near home soil in a Grand Tour too and for once, there has not been a long air trip for Greipel to get to the race start in Holland, either “To get here, it could have jumped in the Rhein River [in Cologne] and come out here of the river in [the nearby Dutch riverside town ] of Arnhem, it would have been a bit quicker than by road, ” Greipel joked. “But seriously, it’s going to be very nice for my family to be able to come and see me racing here for once.”
Warming to this theme, he added, “The weather is forecast to be good, too, and everybody who has been racing in Holland knows what to expect here, but for sure the security will be good on the roads.” In his own case, too, being so close to home means he has had a chance to check out the finales of the two flat Netherlands stages in person. His conclusion? “There are some tricky parts in it, for sure, but that’s the same in any race.”
Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) too, looks set to be a particularly strong rival for Greipel after his win in the Tour of Romandie, and with an exceptionally large number of top fastmen in the Giro d’Italia this year, there is every prospect of what the French like to call a sprint royale unfurling in the finales of the 2016 Giro’s flatter stages. But Greipel is, he says, focussing on what he can do, rather than worrying too much about his rivals.
“This is what you have to do, concentrate on yourself, on your team-mates, set up your own plans.. I always say I can accept when I get beaten, what I can’t accept is when I cannot manage to take part in sprints,” he concludes. “That’s what I am aiming for, to be present in all of the sprints.”
Will he be present through to Turin this year and is the red points jersey a possibility, he was asked? “I’m wearing a red jersey [of Lotto-Soudal] now,” he joked, before turning to a more serious analysis of how likely it will be he finishes the Giro for the first time since 2008, in his first of three participations.
“The goal here is to win a stage, then see day by day how I feel, particularly in the last week which is really hard. Normally the points jersey comes with getting stage wins, “ he reasoned. “But, either way, we have to take every chance we can.”