Mein­t­jes: A hot tip to chal­lenge Froome

Race in Bel­gium the turn­ing point for South African rider

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - KEVIN MCCALLUM

DUR­ING last year’s Tour de France, a slightly cruel and mock­ing meme of Louis Mein­t­jes did the rounds. Mein­t­jes, then 23 years old, was sit­ting with the rest of the MTN-Qhubeka Tour de France squad, look­ing younger than his years, like a school­boy, and above his head was the leg­end: “Best school out­ing ever!”

He never got to fin­ish the “school out­ing”, forced out af­ter suf­fer­ing ill­ness to­wards the end of a Tour in which he had fin­ished fifth on the 12th stage af­ter a hard crash. So he had un­fin­ished busi­ness with the Tour. This year he re­turned with Lam­pre-Merida, the Ital­ian team. There were no more memes of the man with the school­boy face, no more jokes.

The 24-year old with calm steel in his eyes and voice rode to eighth over­all, sec­ond at­tack. The last day was chal­leng­ing for me when (Joaquim) Ro­driquez and (Ro­man) Kreuziger at­tacked. I knew they were threat­en­ing my place on GC but all I could do was hang onto the group of favourites.”

There was con­fu­sion af­ter the fi­nal stage as Mein­t­jes looked to have been given sev­enth place, hav­ing opened a gap to Ro­driquez, who was rid­ing in his fi­nal Tour. But af­ter the race jury had de­lib­er­ated on Sun­day evening, the re­sults were rounded off and time gaps short­ened. Mein­t­jes fin­ished with the same time as Ro­driquez, six min­utes and 58 sec­onds be­hind Froome, but re­mained in eighth on a count­back.

“It was dis­ap­point­ing be­cause there are UCI points and sev­enth place would have been bet­ter but that’s just how things go,” said Mein­t­jes, who had fin­ished at the back with the front group of sprint­ers, 31 sec­onds ahead of Ro­driguez. “I was re­ally con­cen­trat­ing, look­ing for a place to move up and I was very aware of the rid­ers who were just be­hind me on the over­all by just a few sec­onds so I was pay­ing at­ten­tion to not lose any time to them.

“I was re­ally ner­vous un­til the last mo­ment. I re­ally wanted to make sure I fin­ished and didn’t have time to think un­til I crossed the fin­ish line. It was a spe­cial mo­ment when I crossed the fin­ish line. I felt a mix­ture of re­lief and was re­ally proud. It was amaz­ing to see the sup­port from so many South Africans.”

The easy op­tion for Mein­t­jes last year would have been to stay with Di­men­sion Data. It was the team he’d grown up with, a South African out­fit with South African rid­ers. Af­ter agree­ing terms with Di­men­sion Data to ex­tend his con­tract, he an­nounced dur­ing last year’s Vuelta a Es­pana that he would be mov­ing to Lam­pre-Merida, the team of his agent, Rob­bie Hunter.

Some ques­tioned the move. Di­men­sion Data were on the verge of mov­ing up to World Tour sta­tus and, sub­se­quently, Lam­pre has a smaller bud­get than Di­men­sion Data this year. The then Di­men­sion Data team man­ager, Brian Smith, said he be­lieved Mein­t­jes would re­turn to his “home” one day.

“I’ve def­i­nitely learnt a lot at Lam­pre-Merida. You learn small things from ev­ery­one and all that ac­cu­mu­lates to make a dif­fer­ence. When you come to a new team, you are ex­posed to a com­pletely new en­vi­ron­ment and you get a whole new per­spec­tive and take it all in.” He and for­mer world cham­pion, Rui Costa, were co-lead­ers for Lam­pre at the Tour and de­vel­oped a good un­der­stand­ing. “We rode re­ally well to­gether and Rui hav­ing a lead­er­ship role took some of the pres­sure off me. He helped me through some of the stages. We had a young team at the race so we can be even more proud with the re­sult we got. It was nice to have Rui there to guide us and show us how to get re­sults.”

Froome tells of how he be­gan to be­lieve he could com­pete at the top level dur­ing the 2012 Vuelta, when he fin­ished sec­ond, a race he could have won had he not been or­dered to look af­ter Bradley Wig­gins. For Mein­t­jes, the break­through mo­ment, when he be­gan to be­lieve, came in a clas­sic in Bel­gium.

“For me it was when I fin­ished 11th in LiegeBas­togne-Liege last year. To be in the front group with those guys was a big mo­ment for me. They were the best rid­ers in the world and it was a hard race. The re­sult at worlds was a big one but you’re only rac­ing the best un­der-23’s in the world where as Liege had the best guys in all ages in top form.” And now to the Olympics, where Mein­t­jes will be one of a two-man South African team for the road race along with Daryl Im­pey, who comes off a good Tour de France with a sec­ond place on the sev­enth stage. The course suits Mein­t­jes well, but South Africa will be out- manned. Still, be­ing on his own suited Mein­t­jes dur­ing the Tour.

“I think it’s a good course and if ev­ery­thing goes well a good re­sult is pos­si­ble. It’s re­ally hard to say what the tac­tics will be. It will be see­ing what the big­ger na­tions do and read­ing the race, look­ing for an op­por­tu­nity. Daryl and I both had good Tours. We will see what will hap­pen.”

SCHOOL IS OUT: Louis Mein­t­jes has proved he can mix it with the best at this year’s Tour de France.

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