The last three seasons have been riddled with setbacks for Louis Meintjes. Eighth overall in the 2016 and 2017 Tours de France, the 29-year-old South African has subsequently been hampered by crashes, injuries and illness in the three seasons since those attention-grabbing performances. As a consequence, he's failed to register another top 10 finish in a Grand Tour.
Towards the tail-end of last season, with uncertainty hanging over the sponsorship future of his NTT team, he opted to join the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert team that had managed to secure a WorldTour place. It meant a return to Belgium, where he first raced in Europe as an amateur with the UC Seraing team in 2011 before moving on to Lotto's under-23 squad, and there are signs that the move has brought a change of fortune for him.
18th overall at the UAE Tour, where he finished in the top 20 at both summit finishes, Meintjes was right on the heels of Paris-Nice's overall contenders on the race's first big climbing day to Chiroubles, finishing 26 seconds down on stage winner Primoz Roglic. With three tough climbing days still to come in the Race to the Sun, Meintjes is quietly optimistic about his prospects for the season, where the Tour de France is set to be his primary goal.
"It's been pretty good so far. The start of the season's not been too bad and I'm enjoying the new experience," the South African told Cyclingnews before the start of stage 5 in Vienne. "It's been pretty comfortable in the new team, everyone's very friendly. I'm really enjoying it. I kind of knew how the Belgium system works having done my amateur years there. It was good to come back."
Over the course of three seasons when little has gone right for him on the road, Meintjes has learned to treasure the good moments when they come, but also to keep his feet on the ground. Despite the good indications, he still sounds cautious when asked about his current form and prospects.
"I can't say I'm flying and winning races. But my pre-season training definitely went well. I've had no problems. I think with a few more races I'll maybe improve a bit more," he said. "The plan is to prepare for the Tour. There's still a long way to get there and we have to see how the races before go beforehand."
Meintjes, a flyweight climber in the traditional mould, thinks that it's become more difficult for specialists like him to challenge for overall honours at the Grand Tours, and especially the Tour de France. "On the GC side, a lot of different kinds of riders have started focusing it, whereas in the past it was mainly left to the climbers because that's where the big difference was made.
"Now you see a lot of the top time trial guys also giving it a go because they know they can just limit their losses and stay in the fight for the Tour overall by doing that. There's definitely a slightly larger group competing on that front."
Whisper it, but Meintjes might just be on his way to rejoining them.
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