As André Greipel sets out his list of goals for the coming season, there is one in particular that stands out above all others, and he talks about it with a conviction that he cannot muster for the rest of the races on his 2016 programme.
The German was the sprint star of last year’s Tour de France, emerging victorious on four occasions, yet he insists he hasn’t so much as glanced at the route for this year’s edition. Nor has he been through the road book of the Giro d’Italia, where he’ll return again after a stage win last year, to bookmark potential bunch sprints.
It’s a different story entirely, however, when it comes to the World Championships road race in Qatar in October.
The flat course in the gulf state means the rainbow jersey could land on the shoulders of a pure sprinter for the first time since Mark Cavendish in 2011, and Greipel senses the opportunity to turn what he describes as a “childhood dream” into reality.
In contrast to the Giro and Tour, the German has taken it upon himself to studiously examine various aspects of the race, going as far as to research the weather conditions on that exact day – October 16 – in recent years.
“Everyone’s talking about a flat circuit but I looked up the weather from that day in the last years, and I just saw wind,” Greipel tells Cyclingnews in Mallorca, where Lotto Soudal have gathered ahead of the season.
“It was like 50 to 60kp/h. The race can be over after 5 kilometres – if there’s a group with 20 guys in front it’d be really hard to catch them. Everyone who knows Qatar will know it will be warmer than usual, but there will be wind as well.
“You need to be there with a strong team – that’s going to make the difference.”
And Germany certainly have a strong team. Their strength in depth is so great, however, that tensions over selection and leadership will surely be bubbling come the back end of the season. In addition to Greipel, there's the raw speed and power of Marcel Kittel along with the versatility of John Degenkolb, whose twin successes at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix last year mark him out as an ideal prospect for the exigencies of the Qatar course.
Those leadership issues may in fact be simmering away beneath the surface already, with Greipel noticeably tensing up when the names of Kittel and Degenkolb are uttered.
“I’ve shown I’m good in these kind of races, I’m always consistent, and I know how to prepare for a race like that,” he says, putting forward his candidacy with the eagerness of a graduate interviewing for their first job.
“At the end of the day, if the team manager says I won't be the leader then I won’t be the leader, but for me in a World Championships like Qatar you can only have a plan A,” Greipel warns.
“There’s no room for a plan B. You need the whole team to support you. You can’t be world champion alone; you have to have the whole team committed to being there.”
A best ever season, and no sign of decline
Greipel’s ambitions are lofty and his confidence high after what he describes as “the most successful season of my career”. It was a campaign that yielded 15 sprint victories, the highlight undoubtedly being the Tour de France, where he was able to perform that forward-leaning one-armed air punch on no fewer than four occasions, nearly doubling his existing tally of stage wins.
Of July’s victories, Greipel looks back on the fourth and final one as his most treasured, coming as it did on the hallowed Champs Elysées after a seven-year period of Cavendish and Kittel dominance.
“All of them were unique but I would say the win on the Champs Elysées,” says Greipel when asked which of July’s victories he holds most dearly.
“A childhood dream came true. It was a hard way to get there because in the last week I had knee problems after my crash. I managed to get over the climbs and was happy just to reach Paris, so to win the stage was a really special feeling.”
Few sprinters enjoy their best ever seasons at the age of 33, an age at which many are experiencing a decline in speed and power. It is an accusation that has been leveled – perhaps unfairly – in recent years at Mark Cavendish, three years Greipel’s junior.
Decline? It’s the exact opposite in Greipel’s case.
“I haven’t had one year where I couldn’t say that I’ve progressed,” he says. “I’m 33 now and I think I’ll still be able to progress in the coming years. You don’t lose your fast legs just like that," he adds, clicking his fingers. "If you have a good leadout and a good position you are always going be able to win races.”
So how does the German maintain the consistency and motivation that have seen him win a Grand Tour stage in every season since 2008?
“I always say cycling is a character sport. You have to be committed to training well and living for your sport. I think I’m quite good at that.”
The drive, he says, comes not from external pressures, like how his count of stages and jerseys will affect his place in cycling’s pantheon – “I cannot dictate how people will remember me” – but rather it comes from within.
“I always want to challenge myself, to fight against the inner self, your limits. There’s always someone who says you don’t need to, but at the end of the day it makes the difference if you challenge yourself and push yourself to higher limits.
“I still enjoy riding my bike, even in the rain – that’s when you find out if you are really committed to doing your job properly.”
The yellow jersey up for grabs
Greipel’s 2016 season will get underway at Challenge Mallorca later this month, and he will race the Volta ao Algarve before doing Omloop Het Niuewsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Then comes Paris-Nice and the Classics, where he was a pro-active and attacking force last year, in particular lighting up a rather uneventful edition of the Tour of Flanders.
The Lotto Soudal rider will once again return to the Giro d’Italia in May after a fruitful visit last year. It was the first time he had ridden two Grand Tours in one season, and he was able to head to Italy, take a customary stage win, and carry his honed condition to the Tour.
“It was a big step forward to build the base in my condition and I was really happy to be able to race hard there, and for sure it helped me at the Tour – starting the Tour with a higher base,” says Greipel.
This year there’s particular reason for him to want to hit the ground running at the Tour, with a yellow jersey likely to be up for grabs for a sprinter – as it was in 2013 and 2014 – on the flat opening stage from Mont Saint Michel to Utah Beach in northern France.
“All the sprinters are aiming for it, so it will be a real battle," says Greipel, who insists he'll be able to emotionally detach the task at hand from the prize on offer.
“During the sprint you don’t think ‘ah it’s going to be the yellow jersey for the winner’. It’s not like that – at least for me it’s not. You’re just concentrating on trying to do everything right, to be there with your teammates.
“As everyone can see, the first week is always quite hard, dangerous, and nervous. You need the luck on your side to be able to be there and able to sprint for the victory.”
Greipel predicts a more congested sprint pack than ever, not just at the Tour but across the season as a whole.
“There are young guys coming up for the sprints, and we are still there, so it’s always interesting for the future. You can see [Elia] Viviani is improving, [Nacer] Bouhanni is always there. [Bryan] Coquard is also making steps forward. All these young guys will be there for the future. Then there’s [Alexander] Kristoff, Cavendish, Kittel, Degenkolb – you can name about 12. In every race in cycling there’s just one guy that can win. There’s always rivalry.
“As a sprinter it always comes down to the wins," Greipel adds. There's no sign of them drying up anytime soon and the biggest and best may yet be still to come.