Jan Bakelants hopes for fresh start with Ag2r

After battling illness during the off-season, Bakelants hopes his versatility will give him a shot to ride for wins with new Ag2r team

Jan Bakelants is ready to put 2014 behind him. He’s ready to put mononucleosis and the flu behind him. And now, having left a one-year deal with Omega Pharma-Quick Step, he’s ready to find success with his new team, Ag2r La Mondiale.

On the day after his 29th birthday, Jan Bakelants will make his 2015 debut with Ag2r at the Clasica de Almeria. Bakelants signed with the French outfit at the conclusion of the 2014 season.

Over the course of his year with Omega Pharma-Quick Step, he played a variety of roles on a variety of terrains, both in support of his teammates and as a featured rider. He helped Michal Kwiatkowski put together a string of performances in the Ardennes Classics and flashed his own aggressive riding style all season long, jumping into several breakaway moves during a number of major stage races. That ability to get up the road helped him nab his biggest win of the year, Stage 6 of the Critérium du Dauphiné. At the end of the day from Grenoble to Poisy, he out-kicked breakaway companion Lieuwe Westra for a victory. The possibility of having a slightly freer role to reach out for his own results was one of a number of attractive features that informed Bakelants’ decision to sign with Ag2r.

“They have a good team atmosphere and if you look [at] how they rode in the Tour and how they worked together as a team, that certainly was appealing to me. The prospect that every rider who has the legs gets his chances here was something to look forward to,” Bakelants told VeloNews via phone interview during Monday’s team presentation festivities.

That good atmosphere has helped Bakelants find a comfort zone right away, and he seems to be happy in the new environment. Having a fellow Belgian (Johan Vansummeren) on the team helps. “I already knew Vansummeren quite well, we are quite good friends, so it’s nice to have him here. But I also have a good relationship with all the other riders because I speak French quite well,” Bakelants said.

The versatile Bakelants has been training for a diverse array of objectives for the 2015 season, but his preparation for the year to come has not gone quite according to plan.

“After the [2014] world championships, it turned out I was ill. I had mononucleosis and this of course set me back for quite a bit of time. But at the moment, things are improving and I feel better again,” Bakelants said.

Though he is working his way back to 100 percent from his earlier bout with mono, Bakelants has had to alter his early-season plans after yet another illness in the past week; though originally set to make his debut in the Tour of Dubai, he skipped the UCI 2.HC event and pushed back his first day of competition.

“I had the flu last week, so Dubai is not possible for me,” he said. “It’s a shame, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The Clasica de Almeria, then, will be Bakelants’s first race of 2015, likely followed by the nearby Vuelta a Andalucia, and then the SuisseGas Gran Premio Città di Lugano, Paris-Nice, and Italian monument Milano-Sanremo.

The Tour de France stage winner and yellow-jersey wearer (he achieved both when he took a victory in stage 2 of the 2013 Tour) is aiming for more personal successes in 2015, with the bumpier races on the calendar as a main target for the season.

“The hilly classics in the Ardennes are nice goals which I’d say I can target now. In the past I was mostly riding as support for other riders on those occasions, but now I think I will get more of a chance, and I hope to do well in those races,” Bakelants said.

Bakelants is not quite ready to outline any concrete expectations for himself, however, with returning to form after his illnesses a major priority right now. Asked about any specific personal milestones that might make for a successful 2015, Bakelants said simply, “Let’s wait for the first races to see how I will be going after all the things that happened to me in the winter, and then we can set more specific goals.”

That said, Bakelants hopes to play a part in his team’s broader objectives for the season. After spending years among the lower-ranked teams at the WorldTour-level, Ag2r has relied on the strong climbing of up-and-comers like Romain Bardet and Carlos Betancur and veterans like Domenico Pozzovivo and Jean-Christophe Péraud to drive it into contention with pro cycling’s top teams in the sport’s top races recently. The French squad’s breadth of talent led it to team classification victories at both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, and Ag2r is hungry for further success in those competitions this season.

“In this team, team GCs are a really important thing, and last year Ag2r won the team GC in both the Giro and the Tour, and to win the team GC in the Tour again is a really important team objective,” Bakelants said, noting that he too hopes to do well in one of the grand tours in support of Ag2r’s team classification ambitions. Though not necessarily known as a grand tour GC contender, Bakelants has been in the top 20 of both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. Plus, he placed 22nd in the 2011 Giro d’Italia, showing the sort of climbing talent that should be an asset to his squad’s objectives.

Even with hilly one-day races, breakaway moves, and team classifications among the diverse areas in which he will look to shine in 2015, Bakelants has also been training to improve another aspect of his skillset this offseason, one that might help him turn close calls into results: “I hope I go a bit faster in the sprints so that I can finish the opportunities I get.”

Though he has had his fair share of strong performances in his career and has shown a handy sprint on numerous occasions, Bakelants has also landed a few near misses along the way. Returning to full strength from a one-two punch of mono and then the flu will not be an easy task, but on a new team with a bit more freedom, and with a stronger focus on his finishing kick, Bakelants has reasons to be positive about the road ahead and his chances of finding success in the 2015 season.