At the Quick-Step Floors team presentation in Calpe on Tuesday, Bob Jungels confirmed he will lead the team and target the general classification at the Tour de France in 2018. It’s the next step in what he repeatedly refers to as his 'project', namely his progression as a Grand Tour rider, where his limits are set no lower than standing on the podium in Paris in the yellow jersey.
Jungels, by his own admission, is not the purest of stage racers. A strong rouleur, he seemed to have a promising classics career ahead of him when he won the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2012 but, as Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere pointed out, "he didn't choose the ‘easy' path."
Having steadily improved his climbing, moving to Switzerland a couple of years ago, Jungels has finished in the top 10 in the past two editions of the Giro d'Italia, claiming the white jersey for best young rider on both occasions. Now he'll return to the Tour de France, where the ‘project' was born in 2015.
"I think I realised actually when I did the Tour three years ago, that I have abilities to be strong in the last week. Then obviously in the Giro I had confirmation," the 25-year-old told Cyclingnews and Cyclist in Calpe.
"There are a lot of steps still to take but right now I'm on top of everything, I'm the leader in the biggest race in the world and now it's time to shine."
Jungels is buoyed by the recent trend of Grand Tours being won against the clock, rather than in the mountains. Tom Dumoulin, a natural time triallist, claimed a stunning victory at last year's Giro d'Italia, while Chris Froome's last two Tours have been secured without gains in the mountains.
"If you look at like 15 years ago, there was 100km of time trialling in the Tour. Not anymore, but the overall level of the peloton is so much higher – it's incredible how close everyone is. So there is a possibility for a defensive rider to win a Grand Tour," said Jungels.
‘Defensive' is not a word you'd immediately associate with the Luxembourg champion, but he's invested enough in his project to have no second thoughts about laying aside the attacking instincts he's has previously displayed.
"There's a big difference when you have one-day races or a week of racing, compared to a Grand Tour – it's just day and night," he said. "Like in Fleche Wallonne last year I just took the risk and went for it. In the end it didn't happen, but if you did that one day in the Tour, you'd be fucked. That's why I say it's getting more and more defensive, because the level is that high there's no one who can attack with 50km to go and win the stage.
"I know my limits, especially on the climbs. I know I can't follow every attack of [Nairo] Quintana and [Vincenzo] Nibali, but I know I can go really hard for a very long time, so I have to play the cards that I have."
Jungels might be seen on the front foot in April when he drops in for the Ardennes Classics but, despite his insistence on maintaining a degree of variety, it's clear that improving his climbing and endurance sit atop his list of priorities.
He will travel to South Africa later this month to kick his season off with a three-week altitude camp, and will later spend another long stint up high as he builds towards the Tour. In between, he'll begin racing with one-day outings in Murcia and Almeria in Spain ahead of a stage race schedule that includes the Volta ao Algarve, Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Volta a Catalunya, leading into the Ardennes.
"Physically, I'm maybe not the ideal climber, that's for sure, but looking at Tom Dumoulin, who's still a few kilos lighter than me, it's something I'm working on. That's also one of the reasons why I went to Switzerland four years ago, just to have better surrounding of mountains," he said.
"That's the secret behind it, to keep the power and lose the kilos, but yeah, it's something that takes time and I don't want to rush it because I'm 25 and still have a few years to go so I don't pressure myself with that issue."
Tour de France's northern start suits Jungels' skills
The 2018 Tour de France looks particularly appetising from Jungels' perspective, given the challenges laid out in northern France in the first week. Starting in the Vendée region in the north west of the country, the Tour heads up into Brittany and then across to Roubaix in the north east, with pitfalls aplenty in the form of crosswinds, cobbles, and the Mur de Bretagne.
The Classics flavour will suit his Quick-Step team down to the ground, not to mention the important 35km team time trial, the Belgian squad being two-time world champions in the discipline.
"It's a very interesting first week," said Jungels. "One of the strengths of this team is that we can go to a stage race and take every day as a one day race, and that's how it's going to be the first week.
"Maybe one day there are crosswinds, one day a sprint, then the TTT, so every day you have a different race. We have a team really well suited to that. 100 per cent we will try to take advantage of that."
Jungels may be amply protected over the course of that first week, but there are question marks over the support he'll receive in the mountainous second half of the race.
The team are not entirely at his disposal, with Fernando Gaviria leading the charge for the sprint stages. The precocious Colombian won four stages at last year's Giro on his Grand Tour debut and is likely to take Max Richeze and Iljo Keisse as leadout men. Factor in Julian Alaphilippe and potentially Philippe Gilbert, both of whom would surely want free roles to hunt stage wins, and that leaves just two places for domestiques. It's likely only one of them would be someone who could flank Jungels in the high mountains – a far cry from the firepower of Team Sky and Movistar, both of whom will be there with multiple riders who could feasibly win the whole thing.
"With Fernando we showed in the Giro that we work quite well together," Jungels responded. Iljo and Richeze will be good help for me as well because they have the capacity, maybe not on the climbs, but to bring me in good position.
"I would like to have someone like Dries Devenyns or Eros Capecchi – just a guy with a lot of experience. On the other hand it's going to be important to have guys like Yves Lampaert and Niki Terpstra, especially for the first week. I think we'll have a well suited team for this Tour."
Jungels is reluctant to attach a figure to his ambitions for July. It will be his first experience of competing for the yellow jersey, and he's keen to point out that he's still only 25 and in no hurry at all.
"I will try to confirm my performances from the Giro the last two years. It's hard to tell a specific result but just confirming my performances and being satisfied with my three weeks would be great," he said.
This is, though, all part of a long-term project. So how far does he think he can go as a Grand Tour rider, by the end of his career? A podium, a victory, multiple titles?
"Yellow in Paris is always the dream. It's the dream and it's the goal, on the other hand. If you don't reach for the top it doesn't really makes sense," he said.
"All the sacrifices and hard work I put in, there's always a reason behind it. A Grand Tour victory would be amazing, and if it's in France it would be even better."
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