After a difficult season, both on and off the bike, Andre Greipel is looking to reignite his career at the Tour Down Under this week. The race has been a happy hunting ground for the German sprinter over the years, with two overall titles and a run of 16 stages wins that no other rider in history can match, but as Cyclingnews found out in Adelaide the German has no intention of calling time on his career and is as hungry as ever to win.
"I'm going to find out my form in the race, I guess. It's not always easy to finish a season in October and then start racing in January. You need to take some time off and it would be wrong to be in top condition at the moment," he modestly tells Cyclingnews as we sit down in the lobby of the race hotel in downtown Adelaide.
The Tour Down Under has a relatively robust sprint field this year. Greipel plays the role of the elder statesman, while Caleb Ewan arrives as the swashbuckling home-town favourite. There should be cameos from the likes of Peter Sagan and Sam Bennett but this race perhaps means more to Greipel than the others. In the fickle world of sprinting you're only as good as your last win, and while 2017 was far from a disaster on the bike, a disappointing Tour de France saw the 35-year-old miss out on a stage win in a Grand Tour for the first time this decade. When, during the Tour, the man himself even started doubting whether he still had the sharpness to win, questions began to be asked.
"Sometimes in difficult moments, you say stupid things," he says with a grin that portrays years of experience.
"It wasn't the easiest year but that's what sport is about. You can have ups and downs. I've had lots of ups but last year's Tour wasn't my best one. It wasn't that I wasn't there in the sprints. Sometimes I just had bad luck, plus there was a pretty strong Marcel Kittel, who made it hard for everyone to win stages. Sometimes you just have to accept that."
No review of Greipel's year would be complete without understanding what he endured off the bike in 2017. His mother passed away after a long illness last winter, and although he quickly states that there were no excuses for his performances last term, one must empathise with the man. Greipel is a quiet, shy person but he is a devoted family man and last year as his mother's condition sadly deteriorated he would often drive the hundreds of kilometres back home to help care for her along with his sister. Mentally, and physically, it's hard to understand what he must have gone through but the way in which he kept plugging away on the road deserves much credit. Unlike a number of WorldTour teams, Lotto Soudal does not have a GC rider, and they rely on Greipel – as they have done for years now – to provide them with the lion share of their results. The pressure must have been a heavy burden.
"I found out that there are more important things in life than winning bike races," he says before a long pause, as he tries to provide the right words.
"Being there for each other, that's what makes a family. I would never say that the sickness of my mother affected my racing. I don't see it that way and it wasn't responsible for my results. I'm professional enough to try my best but at the same time I'm also a human being and I can't just put everything aside. It was an emotional year but it's time to look to the future.
"I really enjoy going on my bike, I have nothing to prove but I want to challenge myself again. Riding my bike it helps me, it always had."
A quiet dignity can often be misinterpreted as a form of aloofness, but in Greipel the true measure of the man can be accounted by the members of the peloton he has ridden with over the last decade.
Speak to the vast majority of his peers - even his closest rivals - and they will tell you of a rider who keeps his calm, respects everyone, and treats others as he wishes to be treated. In a time when brashness generates headlines faster than courtesy, Greipel bucks the trend. He is in many ways the personification of professionalism.
As far as the future goes, it starts in Adelaide, first with the People's Choice Classic and then the Tour Down Under proper. From there, Greipel will head home and target the Classics before an assault on the Tour de France. The main change to his programme from 2017 sees him skip the Giro d'Italia.
"Obviously I came back because when I started Tour Down Under in the past it led to a successful season. That's why I'm here. I'd like to start a successful season over here," he says.
However, it's in the Classics and then the Tour de France where Greipel's competitiveness will be truly judged. Lotto's policy towards the Classics is based on allowing all their riders to have a chance. They don't have a Van Avermaet or a Sagan but Greipel – in the last few years – has been a constant presence on the cobbles.
"It's all about the Classics first. I want to be there with the team and then after that, I will put the focus on the Tour de France. For a Belgian team, all the Classics are important and we need to have a strong team. It's not just about me, it's for all the main riders on the team. Hopefully, I could be one of them in Roubaix. That's my main ambition.
"It took a while but then I got the Classics fever," he says with a smile.
"I came to a Belgian team and then it started. I got to know how special those races are. I got infected with that and it's special. I can't come out and say that I'll win a Monument but I want to try my best and get a good place."
"I've had heaps of contract years during my career but I just keep riding my bike and see what happens. I want to continue past 2018, of course, and I'll continue for as long as I feel good. I feel good. I'm going to try and be at my best this year but that's the same every year. Every year I try my best and it's no different this year. We're a good team together, and I'm super happy. Let's hope it's until the end but I'm still up there and I've still got the same level. I don't see myself slowing down."
Whether he slows down this year or next, Greipel's legacy within the sport has long since been secured. When he does finally hang up his wheels he'll be remembered not just for the races he's won and how he's won them, but the way in which he's conducted himself as a racer and as a role model. Let's just hope he has at least one more season to showcase it all once more.
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