Stijn Vandenbergh hasn’t competed in a Grand Tour since 2010 and he’s only ever finished one three-week race in his entire career, but the 33-year-old Classics specialist is in contention for a place on Romain Bardet’s Tour de France team.
Why, when teams are being cut from nine riders to eight, would AG2R la Mondiale consider giving a place to a rider who has never made stage racing his forte? The answer lies in the profile of the first week of the Tour de France and Vandenbergh's relatively unique skill set in a team more suited to stage racing in the mountains. The opening days of the Tour – until the first rest-day – are littered with danger, especially for a lightweight like Bardet. Cobbles, tight roads, fights for position and a team trial – Bardet could potentially be minutes down before the race even reaches the mountains.
Step forward Vandenbergh.
"Something like the Tour depends on the condition but I don’t know yet if I’ll do it. It’s been a long time. The last time was when I was at Katusha and I did the Tour de France two times. I finished it once. That’s been seven years ago now," he told Cyclingnews at the Tour Down Under.
Almost two meters in height, Vandenbergh was for five years one of Tom Boonen's protectors at Quick-Step. What was good enough for one of the best one-day riders in history would surely serve a rider like Bardet during the chaos of the first week at the Tour.
One issue, perhaps is that Vandenbergh track record in three-week racing is virtually non-existent. Two starts, one finish does not scream consistency.
"There were other times when I was selected but twice I had injury problems with a knee or a saddle sore. Then it was difficult to make the selection at Quick-Step and it's the same here at AG2R La Mondiale because the Tour de France is the most important part of the year for them. You also have teams going down to eight riders, and that makes it more difficult still."
AG2R are at least considering the Belgian for the Tour. Oliver Naesen and new signing Tony Gallopin are more likely starters but Vandenbergh has been told that if his form is good enough he will be seriously considered.
"They have told me already that if I'm in good shape then they could need me for that first week but it could depend on me and Oliver. I don't know if both could go, it's still a long time away. I'd like to go, it would be nice, and we have the chance to win the Tour.
"It's true I like the small roads, I have experience at that and I like to keep my leader near the front. I like that job. It fits perfectly for me.
"The most important part of the year for me is always the Classics. I've been sad a couple of times in the past when I've not been able to go to the Tour but I'm more of a one-day rider. Three weeks is a long time and for recovery, it's hard for me. I'm used to going full-gas for one day, rather than race for three weeks. My morale for going back to the Tour though is still high. I'm 33 years old now but I'll give it my best chance."
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