MTN-Qhubeka climber Louis Meintjes believes that despite tackling back-to-back Grand Tours - in his case, the 2015 Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana - for the first time in his career, he is in better shape than when he rode the Vuelta last August.
Currently 20th at 1:31, last year the South African finished 55th in the Vuelta, his first-ever Grand Tour. He secured a worthy top five placing at La Camperona and showed he was finishing strongly with an 18th place on the notoriously difficult Ancares climb just one day from the finale.
After a Tour de France where Meintjes had his best ride on the Plateau de Beille stage, taking fifth, but then had to abandon with a severe stomach upset in the final week, the 23-year-old is upbeat about racing in the 2015 Vuelta.
"I’m definitely a step higher than last year at the Vuelta," Meintjes tells Cyclingnews at the start of stage six.
The Vuelta’s second start in as many years in Andalusia is definitely to his liking as well. "Southern Spain is Europe that’s most like Africa," Meintjes argues. "The hot weather and the terrain is very similar, the route’s very good for me. This is the closest to home it gets."
Meintjes is also eyeing the overall classification, but is playing it fairly cautiously, given riding two Grand Tours in one year represents uncharted waters for the South African. "I was fairly unsure of my form after racing the Tour this summer, but we’re keeping the GC door open for now.
"Today [stage six] and tomorrow [stage seven] should make that clearer and maybe GC will be a possibility. Otherwise I’ll look at stage wins instead.
"I’m taking it on the day by day, and we’ll have to see what’s happening in the race. It’s a lot about the race dynamics what the other favourites do. There’s nothing specific I’m targeting, but with so many climbs and summit finishes I’m definitely going to try and pick one stage.
"It’s a very top field here, and always hard to make your own mark when that’s the case. But hopefully," Meintjes said with a grin, "they’ll be a little less motivated than at the Tour de France and have a little bit of fatigue and hopefully I can have some good luck."
Luck was certainly not on his side in the Tour de France, given his stomach upset came at a point when he was returning to top form. "I was definitely starting to feel really good. After being in the breakaway [in the Pyrenees] and then crashing I took things a little easier before I recovered fully, and then when I was feeling really good on the [second] rest day I was looking forward to the Alps.
"But just a few hours before the race started, it all went wrong." He completed the stage to Pra Loup but had been ill all day, finishing 163rd, and could not start the next day.
Whilst finishing the Vuelta is a definite goal after the disappointment of the Tour, Meintjes says he will not be present at the 2015 World Championships. "The course doesn’t suit me and the selection of three riders has already been made, and if the course is not suitable for me it’s better to send another rider."
He will also be looking forward to some time off. "After the Vuelta I’ll be on 87 race days, and last year I did 70-something. We’ll have to see what happens and maybe I’ll do one or two more [races], but most likely it’ll be the end of the season."
Either way, he says he is getting used to racing in Grand Tours, "which calms you down a bit, knowing what to expect. You feel more comfortable." The next step - taking a stage win or a strong GC ride - could be just around the corner.