After three barren years at Team Sky Thomas Lövkvist bounced back to win the Tour Méditerranéen earlier this month. The 28-year-old, who left the British team for pastures new at the IAM Cycling squad, is hoping that the change in teams will help propel him back towards the top of the sport.
“Of course I was really happy with the outcome. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to raise my hands in the air at a bike race and it was a great feeling. It’s been a long time.”
A long time indeed, as Lövkvist was heralded as a promising junior when he turned professional with FDJ in 2004, winning the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe and finishing second overall at the Tour de l'Avenir in his debut season. It hinted at a future in stage racing, while a superb win in Strade Bianche in 2009 and stint in the maglia rosa the same year was a reminder of his overall potential too.
A move to Sky followed at the end of 2009 and before Wiggins put pen to paper, there were brief murmurings that suggested Lövkvist could lead the team at the Tour.
However, three years at Sky saw Lövkvist’s results stagnate. In fact he failed to win a single race as injuries, bad luck and the team’s Tour goals drowned out the Swede’s ambitions.
“It was a great experience. Unfortunately I didn’t have any great success there. I learnt a lot though, especially how to race three-week tours and I know how to handle them. Hopefully I can take that experience with me into the future.”
Lövkvist’s debut Tour for Sky in 2010 ended with him taking 17th place overall. An admirable effort considering he was also tasked with dragging a below par Wiggins through the mountains, but Lövkvist was never able to capitalise on the result. Despite a promising start to the following season he became sick at the Giro in May. The corsa rosa was supposed to be his chance to establish himself as a GC rider of true mettle but he limped home in 21st place.
“I’ve been cursed with a lot of bad luck,” he told Cyclingnews.
“I was up for a good Giro in 2011 but was as sick as a dog and couldn’t do anything in the entire race. I practically came home in a body bag. In 2012 I sat out half the season with a knee injury. But in 2010 I had a pretty good Tour, making the top 20 and helping Wiggins with a lot of work. I was really consistent in that race and came through without a single bad day.”
Having joined Sky on a lucrative three-year deal, 2012 all of a sudden became a make-or-break season. Eight at the Critérium International suggested that the class and finesse were still there, but a knee injury at the Tour de Suisse ruined his season, and along with missing the Tour de France squad, he was forced to miss half the year.
“I had opportunities at Sky, even a couple last year, but the luck wasn’t with me. Take Tirreno for example, which was a big objective for me. I picked up a stomach bug from one of my teammates and at the Tour de Suisse I had a bad knee. I had my chances but just couldn’t do anything with them.”
So when the IAM Cyling team called, Lövkvist seized the opportunity with both hands. While they’re a division below Sky in terms of UCI status and calibre, they offer Lövkvist with a second chance. The Swiss outfit lack a Wiggins or Froome but they possess a number of similar riders to Lövkvist - riders whose careers showed early promise but have underperformed in recent seasons.
"I was looking for a new opportunity for this year. I needed a change of scenery and with that strong of a team at Sky and my lack of results, I was falling down the ladder. It was harder and harder to get my chances. But mostly, I felt like I needed a change.
“I’m very happy with the new team. Since the first couple of training camps and meetings I’ve been very impressed. It’s a new team, so you can’t expect everything to be in place straight away, but I must say they’ve got us good materials and there’s a lot of ambition and spirit.
“We’ve got pressure and ambition to perform but we’ve still got to race well in order to receive invitations for more races, although it’s a relaxed atmosphere.”
The pressure of needing to perform in a year of hand-to-mouth existence based off race invitations may spur Lövkvist into having a strong season. In particular, he has taken aim on the week-long stage races in which he showed all that early promise at FDJ and HTC. With grand tour ambitions on hold until invitations for the Tour and Vuelta a España are confirmed, Lövkvist is happy to select this weekend's Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse as his targets.
“I’m doing Paris-Nice and then I’ll do Sarthe. Then it all depends on invitations and if I can do the Ardennes or not. Then we’ll have Romandie, Bayern and Tour de Suisse. Paris-Nice is the first big race of the year and it’s an important race for the team, and we’ve got to prove that we’re strong if we want a place in the Tour de France. It’s a really important race. Unfortunately, after Med I had a bad cold and that’s set me back a bit. I’m feeling better now though.
“My goals this year are the one-week races where I know I can perform well, like I did when I was at HTC. If we do the Tour, I hope I’ll be on the squad, and the same with the Vuelta, but it’s not a big, big deal this year. Tour de Suisse is the biggest aim. It’s more or less a home race as I live there now and of course it’s a massive target for the team.”