Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) is only 22 but he has already become South Africa’s national champion. With a silver medal at the world championships in the under-23 road race also in his pocket, it looks like Meintjes’ career is on a steep upward curve.
Cyclingnews caught up with the young rider ahead of the Tour de Langkawi, his first international race of the year. Needless to say Meintjes was excited about showing off his newly-acquired jersey. "I’m really looking forward to it, hopefully it will make riding in the bunch easier. Normally the guys, when you’re wearing a special jersey, they give you a little more room in the bunch. So hopefully I get that," he told Cyclingnews, with a big grin on his face.
"It’s still sinking in. When I went there, especially looking at some of the form that my other teammates had leading up to it, I was sure that one them would take it. So it was a really big surprise."
Meintjes beat Daryl Impey to take the title. Despite the huge scalp he took, Meintjes isn’t letting it get to his head. He believes that there was an element of luck to it and takes more solace in the fact that he could stay with the Orica-GreenEDGE rider. "Me sprinting against Daryl is like 99 to 1. Luckily that one percent came my way. It would have been nice to win another way, but cycling is about crossing the line first," explains Meintjes.
"It still feels good, because I was in that position. I feel that if I had one or two percent more then I could have dropped Daryl on the last climb. I take more satisfaction and more confidence out of being able to do that then actually winning the race."
Meintjes is in his second season as a professional rider, after stepping up last year with the MTN-Qhubeka team. He began racing at 16, but it didn’t go too well and he says that he was "smashed" in his first race. It didn’t deter him though and he continued coming back for more.
In 2012, he was able to secure a contract with the Lotto-Belisol under23 team, but that only provided him with three months of racing, with visa issues preventing him from having a full programme. Meintjes says that was one of the driving forces behind him signing for the South African outfit. "From last year, MTN have a full year programme. Especially with the visa, it’s a great help because they organise visas for one year.
"To be able to have a full year of racing is good. So that’s the biggest factor as to why I chose MTN." Meintjes believes that he has found a home in a team that contains so many of his compatriots.
At 22, Meintjes has a lot still to learn and he is happy to absorb it all. For now there isn’t under too much pressure, despite the victory at the South African Championships, but his team manager Doug Ryder sees Meintjes as a potential superstar. Ryder stated in an interview that he hopes to build Meintjes into one of the country’s greatest stage racers, and possibly one of the world’s. It’s a hefty vision to place on the young rider’s shoulders, but Meintjes takes it in his stride.
"It’s always nice to hear stuff like that and it gives you confidence," he tells Cyclingnews. "It’s something that I would like to achieve. That’s the big dream. It’s not just stage races, one-day races are a big goal too." Only time will tell if he can live up to Ryder’s expectations, but he’s made a good start.
South African cycling enjoyed a boost when Impey wore the Tour de France’s yellow jersey for two days. Race winner Chris Froome also spent his teenage years in the country and regularly returns there to train. While there are a number of South African riders coming through the cycling ranks, Meintjes believes that he is lucky to be where he is now and that it still isn’t an easy way to the top for the riders. "I don’t know if I’m the best rider or if I’m the one that deserves it the most, but I got the opportunity and I took it and did something with it," he says.
"It’s pretty hard if you’re a rider in South Africa starting out. It pretty hard to be a junior rider and you say you want to be professional, because there’s no clear pathway to do it. The success rate is so low and there are so few opportunities. Until we get to the point where a junior cyclist can easily consider it a career, we have to get to that level to compete with the mainstream."
Meintjes is all about setting himself challenges and achieving them and helping his MTN-Qhubeka move up to the WorldTour is one of them. He has other priorities first, like winning his first race in Europe and picking up the experience of riding in the professional peloton.