When the Santos Tour Down Under starts on Tuesday, André Greipel (Arkea-Samsic) may be the most obvious gap in the usual line-up of sprinters. But, although he recognises he’ll miss the Australian event, the veteran German sprinter says he is too immersed in his new challenges to get overly nostalgic.
Greipel has won the Tour Down Under overall on two occasions, and two stage victories last year on the opening and closing days increased his record total of stage wins in the Australian event to 18.
But following his move to French Pro Continental team Arkea-Samsic from Lotto-Soudal, Greipel is now following a very different run-in to his season. The opening part of his year will have a very different feel, too.
“For sure, I’ll miss the Tour Down Under,” Greipel told Cyclingnews from the Arkea-Samsic training camp in Britanny. But that’s not a problem, you cannot take part in all the races.”
Greipel says he will not be pulling any all-nighters to watch the TDU stages, although he added, “I might watch the reviews.”
Instead, Greipel will kick off with the Tropicale Amissa Bongo stage race in Gabon on January 21-27, followed by much more familiar terrain in the last day’s racing in the Mallorca Challenge (February 3), where he has four wins in different events in the series, the earliest back in 2010.
Racing in Africa will be a new experience for Greipel, who noted: “It doesn’t matter where I’m going to race, and I always knew that when I came here I’d have to get to know new races.”
The German has won on his season debut in seven times over the past decade, so he certainly has a good track record wherever he pins on his first race number of the season. Also pencilled in are starts at the Tour of Oman (February 16-21), where he took three stages in his previous participation in 2014, then Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne (March 3), a race in which he has finished on the podium back in 2011, Paris-Nice (March 10-17) and - subject to wildcards - the Volta a Catalunya (March 25-31).
Wildcards will also be key to his participation in the Classics, although he is keen to take part in Milano-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“Of course, I have to wait and see where we get invited or not, but I’m mostly hoping for Paris-Roubaix,” he said.
Compared to previous years, Greipel described himself as cautiously optimistic about his form. "I think it looks quite good, although you only ever really find out in the races," he said. "But the feelings are good and that’s the most important thing.”
He is equally satisfied with the team. “It’s working really well. The team is efficient, we’re practicing a lot together and we’re going to have to see how we do in the races, but I think we’re going to do well. I’ve raced a lot over the years with a lot of different lead-out men, and I know what training can show you. I think we are going to be quite fast.”
There are no similarities, he says, with his last non-WorldTour team, Wiesenhof, the German squad where he made his debut as a pro (and where Geraint Thomas also briefly featured as a stagiaire in the same year) back in 2005.
“This is way better organised, and for sure it’s a division down [lower] than the category I raced before [at T-Mobile, HTC-Colombia and Lotto-Soudal], but you don’t notice it in its organisation and its professionalism.”
The question of wildcards for the Tour de France is a key one for the team, particularly with Cofidis and Wanty-Gobert being awarded two of the four on offer for 2019.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t important, but I think we shouldn’t question the decisions they’ve taken because they were logical. Cofidis won the European Tour, Wanty did well in the other Tours [Wanty won the Europe Tour, Cofidis finished second - Ed.] and have good results as well, plus the Tour starts in Belgium as well,” said Greipel.
“We know that we have to be successful to get selected, but we should just concentrate on the races we’re doing and try to show ourselves.”
Although sprints will be where everybody expects Greipel to shine, Paris-Roubaix remains a race he is particularly keen to participate - and where he has the results to back up that enthusiasm, too.
“It’s a race you always watch on TV, and it’s always exciting, one for the strong guys. I just feel that I can do well there. I was seventh two years ago, and I was eighth in the Tour stage last July despite three crashes. I don’t see myself winning but I want to do better than seventh,” he explained. “It’s one of the races where I don’t need to race for the sprint like I’m always having to do. It’s in my character to attack in those events. You don’t need to wait for the favourites.”
Where Greipel says he has seen no change in the off-season, is in his willingness to continue racing, and there are no plans for retirement beginning to loom on the horizon.
“Over the winter I found I loved the sport as much as always and I would do my training even in the rain and over the cobbles,” he said. “And, for me, that’s always a sign that I’m still ambitious and still professional enough to do my training.
“If I didn’t do that in the rain, I know I should stop, but this is not the case. And the sprint numbers are still the same, so I don’t see myself slowing down.”