BANYOLES, Spain (VN) – Gatis Smukulis slipped back into the peloton in Wednesday’s big climbing stage at the Volta a Catalunya, but a big stage win and two days in the leader’s jersey put the relatively unknown Latvian firmly in the spotlight.
The 23-year-old took the dare offered by HTC-Highroad sport director Allan Peiper in the challenging, two-climb opener of the Volta on Monday. Peiper said the stage would be unorganized and that a breakaway would have chances to win the stage. Smukulis rose to the challenge and then soloed home a victory 28 seconds ahead of the fast-charging pack.
“He had carte blanche (Monday) and he took advantage of it and rode everyone into the ground,” Peiper told VeloNews. “ I think he will have a great future. Even Bjarne Riis came up today in his car and said, ‘wow, that kid’s an animal.’ Now people are seeing him.”
The victory was Smukulis’ first big win since turning pro with Ag2r-La Mondiale two years ago. The strapping Latvian had a big 2008 season, winning the U23 Tour of Flanders and a stage and third overall at the Ronde de l’Isard. That got him noticed among the pro teams.
Last year, however, he struggled with glandular fever, but HTC-Highroad knew that Smukulis has a big engine that will come in handy in the classics, in time trials and in long breakaway efforts like Monday’s.
HTC brass were so impressed that they’ve given him a spot on the team’s Paris-Roubaix roster.
“He won Flanders U23 in 2008, he had glandular fever last year. It kind of knocked him around, after two years of turning pro and then coming back from being sick, the win was real big for him,” Peiper said. “I told him yesterday that I put him into Roubaix, which was the race he really wanted to get into. It’s good to see a young kid get out of a situation last year and make his mark.”
Peiper said HTC is always on the lookout for young, talented riders with a lot of upside, a task that’s especially important for the team where riders often post good results with HTC before signing contracts to head to other teams.
Smukulis was one of six new faces for HTC-Highroad for the 2011 season.
“I don’t know if we scout any different than other teams, but we have a definite vision on how this team needs to look. We decided four years ago how we wanted to approach cycle racing and we’ve stood by that since,” Peiper said. “When riders leave, we have to find new riders to replace them. We do a hell of a lot of thinking about how many sprinters, how many lead-out guys, how many classics guys, how many GC guys, how many climbers; we want a balanced team.”
So far, it looks like Smukulis is fitting right in.