The spotlight has been on Africa in recent days with the news that MTN-Qhubeka achieved their dream of sending an African registered team to the Tour de France. Their ultimate goal is to produce the first African Tour de France champion and Louis Meintjes is one of their leading lights. At 22 Meintjes had his best season to date in 2014, winning the South African national championships and making his Grand Tour debut, and he’s hoping he can top that in 2015.
“I can see that I’m improving the whole time, I’m really happy with that. I’m gaining confidence with every single race and I feel that I’m getting better and stronger towards the finish of every race. I’m really happy to do some more WorldTour events,” Meintjes told Cyclingnews. “If I can just keep on improving and be happy with the results then I’ll be happy with my performance.”
Meintjes has been part of the MTN-Qhubeka project since 2013 after spending a season with the Lotto-Belisol U23 team. He showed plenty of promise that year but the win over Daryl Impey at the South African national championships in 2014 was an early indication that he was ready to make the next step. He also secured his third consecutive U23 time trial title.
In Europe things were also progressing nicely and he came close to the biggest win of his career so far with a late attack on the final stage of the Giro del Trentino. He would be passed by Astana’s Mikel Landa in the final three kilometres but took victory in the young rider’s classification. Unsurprisingly, Meintjes was selected for MTN-Qhubeka’s first Grand Tour at the Vuelta a España along with five other three-week rookies.
It was a daunting experience but that didn’t stop him from mixing it with the likes of 2012 Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal in a breakaway on stage 14. “I think we were all a bit scared, not knowing how the last week was going to feel. You just have to go there and give it your best shot,” Meintjes said.
“I took the first week easy just to make sure that I could make it through the Vuelta and we would see how I felt during the last week and how I was going. I still felt strong. I actually felt like I was getting better every day. I’m really happy with the fact that I could race until the last stage.”
Bigger and better
This season should be the biggest yet. He will start it at home as he races the African championships and tries to defend his road race title at the South African championships. From there he will likely ride the Tour of Oman (or the Ruta del Sol, depending on travel logistics), Tirreno-Adriatico and the Criterium International. Meintjes will get a rare chance to return home for some training and the Mzansi Tour in April before the Ardennes Classics.
With MTN-Qhubeka securing a spot at the Tour de France, the three-week race will be the big goal for Meintjes. The hype around the team’s inclusion has already been huge but it will only grow as the race gets closer, something that isn’t lost on the young rider.
“I can see all the extra hype and the extra attention the team’s been getting just after the Vuelta and the Tour’s 10 times that. It will be absolutely amazing for cycling in Africa and cycling in South Africa especially. Most people only know about a few races and absolutely everyone knows the Tour de France. It will be great for the charity as well, just to get the name out.”
MTN-Qhiubeka’s Tour de France team won’t be named for some time but, if Meintjes continues his impressive progression, there is little doubt that he will be among the riders lining up in Utrect.
“For any rider to ride the Tour de France changes their career, especially if you go there first and become part of the first African team to ride the Tour de France it will be even bigger,” he said. “A lot of racing doesn’t get broadcast here in South Africa and not a lot of other races get understood here but the Tour de France does. If I can be a part of that it will be huge.”
A learning curve
It’s not just Meintjes that has been developing dramatically over the past season, his team has too. They brought in a large number of WorldTour riders, including Tyler Farrar, Matt Goss and Edvald Boasson Hagen. During their training camp in South Africa last year the team made sure to mix the new with the established riders, with Meintjes sharing a room with Boasson Hagen. The camp only lasted a week but Meintjes already began to pick up handy tools to help him during the season.
“You actually learn the most from just watching them. You can see small little things like how they eat at dinner, how they behave before cameras,” Meintjes explained to Cyclingnews. “The more we get it, the more I realise how much it’s worth. At the start, I thought ok what can they teach you? It’s easy, you just pedal your bike harder.
“There’s definitely a whole lot more to bike riding. Just the whole lifestyle, there’s so many things that you have to do. You can see all the stuff that they pack in their suitcase. It’s small little things that make your life a little bit easier and all those things add up.”