Tim Wellens describes 2015 as the year he confirmed his potential, but the 24-year-old Belgian is well aware of the danger of resting on his laurels and insists he needs to make further progress, and provide further confirmation of his ability over the course of 2016.
The Lotto Soudal rider had a breakthrough campaign in 2014, winning the Eneco Tour, finishing fourth at Il Lombardia, and taking two second places at the Giro d’Italia, which all contributed to heightened expectations and ever more intense media attention as Belgium realised he could develop into a successful stage racer and climber.
“There was a lot of pressure last year because everybody was talking about the confirmation that had to come,” Wellens told Cyclingnews at Lotto Soudal’s recent training camp in Mallorca.
“In the Belgian media they were asking for confirmation. There’s quite a lot of pressure there but that’s normal – you prefer them to talk about you than not. People complain about another interview, another photo-shoot, but that means you had a good year.”
In any case, Wellens overcame the pressure and backed his breakthrough up with a repeat overall win at the Eneco Tour last summer, followed by victory at the WorldTour-level GP de Montréal, not to mention his 10th place overall finish at Paris-Nice.
“Thanks to my second victory at the Eneco Tour and the victory at Montreal the confirmation was there. However, every year will have to be a confirmation and I’ll have to try to do better. The important thing is to make a step forward every year,” he said.
This year will see Wellens change up the structure of his calendar as he will return to the Giro d'Italia after an difficult debut at the Tour de France last year. The main problem was attempting to peak both in the spring and in July and Wellens believes it caused him to under perform in both.
“The Walloon Classics were a little bit under my expectations, so that was a bummer because they are the most important part of my season. They are close to home and are races I love,” he explained. “Then I had a really long preparation for the Tour, I had to drop a few races I like to ride, then the Tour was not very good, it was really bad actually. The legs were not good from the beginning and I was struggling to follow. It was my first Tour de France and the team won four times so I cannot complain – it was a good experience for sure but for me personally it wasn’t a good Tour.”
The approach this year will be the same as it was in 2014 – go all out for the Ardennes Classics and hope to carry that form into the Giro d'Italia in search of a debut Grand Tour stage win.
“First of all I want to be good in the Walloon Classics and try to carry that form for the Giro. I did the Giro in 2014 and it was perfect – I went in the breaks a lot and was second twice. One big advantage is that I can do nice races after the Giro that you can’t do when you do the Tour, like the Tour de Pologne – that’s a nice race.”
Olympics and climbing
Aside from the Ardennes, there is one objective that stands out on the 2016 calendar, and it won’t be raced in the red of Lotto Soudal but rather the light blue of the Belgian national team.
The Olympic Games take place on a hilly course and Wellens is confident he’ll be on the plane to Brazil in the summer and may even be Belgian’s best card to play on the hilly Rio course.
“I haven’t been there, I didn’t do the test event but I have a good friend who went and he said it’s really impressive how hard it is,” said Wellens. “The national coach also said it’s the hardest race he’s ever seen in the Olympic Games.”
The problem is, is it too hard for Wellens? The 253-kilometre course has been described by most as one for the climbers, with six short climbs across three laps of the Grumari circuit followed by four laps of the Canoas/Vista Chinesa circuit, which features the 8.5km Vista Chinesa climb at an average of 5.7 per cent. Wellens admits that the longer climbs have been a weakness for him in the past but are nevertheless an area where he has made significant improvement.
“At Paris-Nice I felt I made a progression – I could do things I couldn’t do in 2014,” he noted. “In the mountains I felt I could follow for longer. I made a big improvement on the long climbs. I know for sure that in 2014 I wasn’t capable of being 10th in Paris-Nice.”