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How Intermarché-Wanty went from roster rags to racing riches: ‘Our position as outsiders united us’

From Girmay and Kristoff to Van der Hoorn and Hirt, Intermarché-Wanty is the team that took on the WorldTour giants and won.

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Eighteen months ago, the WorldTour hardly knew who Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert-Matériaux was.

Now in May 2022, the motley crew captained by Biniam Girmay, Domenico Pozzovivo and Alexander Kristoff has a reputation of being the underdog with a big bite.

Rising from the ashes of the CCC set-up and built on the foundation of team Wanty-Gobert, the Intermarché-Wanty crew didn’t let a tiny budget and stitched-together roster get in its way when it formed last winter.

The Belgian team amassed a series of unforeseen scores with a long list of riders.

Girmay made history at Gent-Wevelgem. Kristoff rolled back the years at Scheldeprijs. Pozzovivo, Girmay, and Jan Hirt are making hay at the Giro d’Italia. The list runs long.

The team now sits seventh in the UCI rankings, higher than heavyweights like Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Movistar or Astana.

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And having Girmay, Pozzovivo and Kristoff in one roster says it all. Intermarché-Wanty is a true pick’n’mix mash-up of riders. The team brought a shopping basket of unknown or overlooked racers from a dozen different nations into a cohesive rabble of rookies and veterans that wins all year long.

We spoke to performance manager Aike Visbeek about how Intermarché-Wanty Gobert-Matériaux rose from roster rags to racing riches.

VeloNews: It must have been a tricky process to bring together a stack of new signings and riders from CCC into an established Wanty-Gobert core at the start of last season. How did you make bring the group together and help them unite?

Aike Visbeek: When we prepared for 2021 we made clear to the guys we had a lot against us. We had one of the smallest budgets, and without even looking at the rankings we were not in a favorable position.

We knew we had to take every opportunity we got, and really focus on working together and figuring out what we can do better. We knew it was going to be a long and difficult season and that it was going be very difficult. The riders knew the situation too.

We weren’t the biggest, we didn’t have star riders, but we needed to win, fast. Our position as an outsider united us.

VN: Biniam Girmay wasn’t a star when you signed him from Delko last year, but he sure is now. How did you spot him and bring him aboard?

AV: When I joined the team in 2020 we didn’t have many upcoming young riders and we didn’t have a real new generation. And that was worrying – that’s the card you want to play when you have a smaller budget, you want a stream of young up-coming riders.

The team boss was really intent on both staying WorldTour and creating a new generation. So from that minute I was looking for young riders in Pro Conti teams, and ‘Bini’ was top of that list.

When Delko hit financial difficulties in March we knew we had to move. And it worked both ways. It released him from a difficult situation in Delko, and because we bought him out of the contract, it gave Delko some money to keep racing.

Girmay and Kristoff represent the breadth of ages and nationalities in Intermarché’s diverse roster.

VN: I gather Girmay attracted a lot of interest from other teams?

AV: UAE Emirates and a few more WorldTour teams were interested. But we were first on the ball! By the time others were looking at him we were already close to an agreement. He had a good feeling with our plan and he like our familiar environment.

For him too, he saw opportunity with us. He knew he’d be able to ride more finals with us than in a team like UAE. He wanted to win, not be a support rider.

All these things came together really well and we fended off the big teams that were all over him. UAE was a top competitor, but they could not offer what we could. Being smaller played in to our advantage.

VN: Girmay has been at the center of a stormer season for the team. How did you build momentum so fast?

AV: For me, it was really important to be able to give the guys the proper tools. For example, although we have a small budget, we work with the best nutrition brands rather than those that could be a much more interesting deal commercially.

And I also noticed from the beginning of the team that on the nutrition side, we could still both progress a lot in racing and in training. But instead of doing all the fancy testing with ketones and whatever, we stuck to doing the basic things really well.

We managed to get the inexperienced riders that were at a low level nutrition-wise to raise the level, and there we could gain 30 percent. On the other hand, maybe with someone like Jan Bakelants, one of the most experienced riders, we could maybe only progress two percent with nutrition. But that all came together to raise the whole level.

And we followed that principle in a lot of basic things.

Aike Visbeek joined Intermarché from Sunweb in 2020.

VN: How did things change on the road when the team came together last year?

AV: We totally changed our strategies. Rather than just showing ourselves for the sponsor and riding in meaningless breakaways, we decided we have to change our game plan. We knew if we want to get a result, we should only be in the breaks that have a realistic chance of going to the finish. We put our energy only where there’s a chance of a result.

Also, if we put our energy in a meaningless break, that means you have fewer guys to help the sprinter. So obviously we didn’t have a star sprinter, so you only make yourself even weaker in the sprint when you put riders in the break for no reason.

So that philosophy I changed, we want to ride offensively, but we want to ride offensively for results. But then we are willing to take risks. If you go, you go early, you gamble, but you go for it.

VN: And looking forward, what’s your ambition longer term?

AV: The big goal at the moment is to become a stable top-10 in the WorldTour. And you can see we are going well with that this year [the team is currently seventh in the UCI points rankings – ed].

Being a stable team means that we’re always around the top-10 on the team ranking, and that every year we win a classic. We won Gent-Wevelgem and Scheldeprijs and we really want to be a stable team that wins a big one-day race every year.

But we also want to be competitive in the ground tours, chasing the top-10 on GC, but most of all stage wins. And you can see that now at the Giro – we had Pozzovivo riding high in GC and we won with Bini and Jan Hirt already.

Hirt went deep into his locker to keep Intermarché’s stunning season swinging.