With Chris Froome locking out Team Sky’s Tour de France leadership for the foreseeable future, opportunities to head up the team at a Grand Tour are hard to come by and Wout Poels is going to have to wait another year for his.
After possibly his best season to date, Poels cited his intentions to aim for the general classification at the Giro d’Italia towards the end of last year. However, he will not be heading to the Italian race this year, with Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas set to co-lead, and will instead be back to support Froome at the Tour.
Speaking at a Team Sky training camp in Mallorca, Poels was his usual jovial self. “Yeah, they flicked me with that,” he laughed, not showing any disappointment, if he felt any at all.
“That’s such a strong team and I really want to try for GC in a Grand Tour one day but this team is so strong. Mikel was already once third in the Giro so it’s difficult for me to stand up and say ‘hey I also want to do that’ when I’ve never got top 10 before. I have to wait for that chance and hopefully I can have it one day.”
Having battled back from a horrific accident in 2012 that left him in intensive care and with a ruptured spleen and kidney, Poels is a rider who takes everything in his stride. The Dutchman will get a few opportunities to show himself to the top brass at Team Sky this season and he hopes that he will be able to prove himself and earn a promotion for 2018.
“I think I’ll lead Paris-Nice this year and the Tour de Suisse, races like that, seven days or longer. I’ve also said that they’re really nice races and really nice goals for myself to prove myself,” he said.
“If I can show myself in those races then they’ll have a little more confidence that I can lead a Grand Tour. This is the first step and then the second step could be a Grand Tour.”
Poels added that if he was to be given the chance, he didn’t want to do it by half measures and that it was unlikely he would go to the Vuelta a Espana with any general classification ambitions.
“It’s a bit of a mental thing, especially if you go with Chris to the Tour. You have three weeks really on the limit. It’s quite stressful and then they say at the end of the Tour that you can go to the Vuelta, you’re not really jumping [saying] ‘yay, again three weeks on the limit’,” explained Poels.
“If I have the opportunity to lead the team then I want to prepare how I do for the Tour. I don’t want to go to the Tour and then the Vuelta and see how it goes. Because, if it doesn’t go well then you might not have the opportunity anymore.”
The Ardennes and the Tour de France
The crux of Poels’ season will be the Tour de France where the team is looking for their fifth overall title and Froome is targeting his fourth.
Poels has become an indispensable part of Froome’s support network since joining Team Sky in 2015, and he is more often than not the last man standing in the mountains. His role may be even more pronounced this season with the Tour organisers designing a very different route.
With many more rolling stages and less time trialling and fewer pure mountain stages, Poels predicts that there will be much fewer climbers in the nine-man team.
“I would do the same I think, to make the race nice,” Poels said of the decision. “The whole line-up for the Tour is going to be so different so for the mountains we will have fewer riders for Chris. The flat stages are going to be also really important to do those well. It’s going to be quite interesting in terms of who the team will bring.”
Poels might be unsure of his qualifications to lead a Grant Tour but there is no doubt that he has earned the right to call the shots at the Ardennes Classics. The Dutchman became the first member of Team Sky to win a Monument when he out-sprinted Michael Albasini at last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The Ardennes races, which predominantly take place a little over an hour away from Poels’ home town of Venray in the Netherlands have long been a favourite for the Dutchman but it only came together for him last year.
“The Classics were really important last year, because I really wanted to go to the Olympics,” explained Poels. “Then they were saying Wout can’t do really good one-day races, so I thought now I have to show that I can do one-day races. I think it was this time of year I said that I really want to go to the Olympics so I’ve got to do really well in the one-day races so I want to make a really big goal in the Ardennes races.
“I always liked the Ardennes because they were uphill races. I wanted to do well but I didn’t. I think that 12th in Fleche was my best and I really like that one. Liege was always so hard and long, but now I know that I can do that so that’s good."