One of the revelations of last year’s Tour de France was South African climbing sensation Louis Meintjes (UAE – Abu Dhabi).
The bird-like climber went toe-to-toe against the big guns last summer, and punched into the top-10 with eighth overall (tied for seventh) at 6:58 back. Also second in the best young rider’s category, expectations are high for a repeat this summer.
The 24-year-old is taking aim at the Tour again this summer. How far can he go?
“I’ve had great preparation coming into the season, and the big picture is to hit my peak in July for the Tour,” Meintjes told VeloNews. “My performance last year in the Tour gave me a lot of confidence, so let’s see if we can go even better.”
The soft-spoken man from Pretoria believes he can go deeper into the GC, but just how far remains to be seen. A spindly climber — at just 5-foot-6 at 140lbs, he is similar to Nairo Quintana — Meintjes has a diesel-style engine well-suited for the Tour. Plus, he likes heat, so he’s steering clear of this year’s more climber-friendly Giro d’Italia in favor of another shot at the Tour.
“The plan is to build for the Tour, and we want to do a similar program to last year,” he said. “So no Giro for me. I quite like the Tour, the weather is hotter, so it’s more of a natural choice for me to go back to the Tour. I am sure the Tour will be difficult enough.”
Meintjes is pure South African, and is part of a new generation of African riders seeing an early entrée into the European peloton thanks to in-roads made over the past few decades.
After promising junior and U23 results (he was runner-up in the U23 road worlds in 2013), he turned pro with South Africa-based MTN – Qhubeka in 2013. Encouraging results, including 10th in the 2015 Vuelta a España, and a solid Tour debut, despite eventually pulling out with a stomach virus in 2015, inevitably attracted the attention of WorldTour teams. His departure from now-Dimension Data to then-Lampre – Merida (now UAE – Abu Dhabi) ruffled a few feathers, but he stands by his decision to change teams despite off-season sponsorship worries at Lampre.
“There were a few weeks and months of uncertainty, and we are happy that it all worked out,” he said. “The team is pretty much the same, but there are some new faces, and the ambiance on the team is really good. I’ve learned a lot here, and they really support me well.”
Meintjes debuted at the Santos Tour Down Under, and will race at the Abu Dhabi Tour next week before opening his European calendar at the Volta a Catalunya. After a detour through the Ardennes (he was 11th in the 2015 Liège-Bastogne-Liège), he’ll turn his sights toward the Tour.
Last year, he doggedly hung on when the big moves came late in the mountains. His steady performance only fuels his ambitions, and at only 24, he believes he can punch closer to the top-five.
“It gave me confidence, and after I had the top-10 in 2015 Vuelta, last year showed it wasn’t just luck,” he said. “I put enough pressure on myself, so I don’t have to worry [about what others say]. I don’t want to say ‘top-five’ or to put a target, because you also need some luck. If I have ideal preparation for the Tour, I can be happy with that.”
His handicap? Like most thin, pure climbers, the time trials. Climbing time trials are another story, and he vows to keep working on his all-round skillset.
“I feel like I am just starting,” he said. “If you want to be the best bike rider in the world, that means winning the Tour de France. And that is not so easy.”