MTN-Qhubeka caught by surprise Meintjes contract U-turn

MTN-Qhubeka have told Cyclingnews that they were caught completely by surprise when one of their future stars Louis Meintjes agreed a two-year contract with the Lampre-Merida team.

Meintjes' manager told Cyclingnews last month that they were close to signing an extension to his existing contract at the South African team, while team manager Brian Smith has said that a new contract had been sent out for the 23-year-old to sign but there appeared to be a sudden change of heart.

"We'd already agreed terms with his manager and we'd spoken to him. The terms had already been met and a contract had been sent to Robbie Hunter," Smith told Cyclingnews. "For some reason there was a very big U-turn from Louis, I don't blame him for that. I don't know who to blame but we'd agreed, the contract had been sent. Maybe the contract hadn't been chased up because we'd become complacent because we thought why would Louis want to leave his team, this is his team."

The announcement of the new deal came last Thursday just as Meintjes moved into the top 10 at the Vuelta a Espana, a position he consolidated in the time trial this Wednesday. The move was as equally surprising to Meintjes' teammates, who initially found it difficult to come to terms with it. Smith criticised the decision to make the announcement during the Grand Tour, saying that is was disrespectful of both the team and their riders.

"I don't think it was announced to benefit us. I think Lampre and the management could have done it at a better time," said Smith. "There are a couple of riders at the Vuelta that are doing really well and one of them I'm looking to sign next year. I got a phone call and people are starting to ask the question but I said no because I've got respect for the team and the rider and any announcements will be done after the Vuelta.

"I really question why Lampre would release that they're signing Louis Meintjes during the Vuelta. How do you think the whole team felt the next day? I went down to breakfast and they were all very down… Louis is an intelligent person but I think that he has been steered in the wrong direction, but that's my personal opinion."

With only one high mountain stage remaining, and four stages in total, Meintjes looks set to hold onto that top 10 position, which would be MTN-Qhubeka's best Grand Tour result so far. Smith is adamant that Meintjes' decision to leave the team will not impact on how the team ride for him in the coming days.

"It's all about raising awareness of Qhubeka and the 5,000 bikes campaign. I told them that I wanted them to support Louis because finishing 10th in the Vuelta is huge. It's not about us, he has a contract until the end of December and he will be supported by the team," Smith explained. "For him to finish top 10 in the Vuelta is huge for MTN-Qhubeka even if he is leaving the team. That's irrelevant."

Meintjes joined MTN-Qhubeka for the first season at Pro Continental level in 2013, after spending a year with the Lotto-Belisol under-23 team. His departure is not just a blow for what he brings to the team on the bike but off it also. He has become an intrinsic part of the set-up and is one of their key ambassadors in spreading the Qhubeka message. Smith is confident that he will continue to support the message while at Lampre-Merida and that it won't be long before we see him back in the team's colours.

"I wished him luck and I hope he goes on to do well. I said to him, 'look, I know that you'll be back in a couple of years and you'll win the Tour de France for us,'" Smith told Cyclingnews. "When everything was agreed and then there was suddenly a U-turn, something must have happened. I don't think the team has done anything wrong. I believe that Louis will still support the team and he'll still support Qhubeka."

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