It’s been a disappointing start to the season for Israel-Premier Tech but general manager Kjell Calström believes that his team can bounce back and secure their WorldTour status for next season.
The squad are hanging on to their top-tier status by a thread, according to the latest UCI ranking, after the opening months of their campaign saw their roster ravaged by injury and illness, but Calström is confident that once his riders are healthy they can turn the situation around.
Speaking exclusively to VeloNews from his home in the south of Finland, Calström also believes that while it’s impossible to plan for title challenge at the Tour de France, former winner Chris Froome still has the capacity to return to his former level.
“Let’s put it like this, it’s definitely been challenging,” Calström said in relation to the team’s tough start to the year.
The squad has picked up just one win so far, a stage at Gran Camiño courtesy of Michael Woods. Illness and injury have decimated the team with almost all of their big hitters having spent time on the sidelines so far this year. New signing Giacomo Nizzolo was the latest rider to be beset with bad luck when he crashed and fractured his wrist in Milan-San Remo. Although he managed to finish the race he could be out of action until mid-April.
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Jakob Fuglsang, Woods, Froome, Sep Vanmarcke and Alessandro De Marchi have all been ruled out at some point in the opening months of the 2022 campaign.
“We’ve had a lot of unfortunate circumstances with a lot of guys getting sick. We’ve had injuries but it is what it is for the start of the season,” he said. “It’s challenging for sure but we’re hoping that they come around soon and we can have a good restart. We did have Mike Woods get a good result in Gran Camiño but that took it out of him because he then had a stomach bug. It’s never easy to come back from that immediately. I don’t know how many guys have not been sick in the first part of the season. We had it at the worst possible time for the riders hoping to perform in the early races.”
Froome recently returned from a near five-month absence from racing. The four-time Tour de France winner picked up a knee injury over the winter and was forced to skip a number of early season races before he eventually made his comeback at the Coppi e Bartali this week.
Last year saw Froome enjoy his first full season since his career threatening crash at the 2019 Dauphiné but despite a full program he faced a recurrence of the parasitic worm disease, bilharzia throughout most of the year. Now back on his bike, Calström believes that it’s too early to talk about Tour de France leadership, and that the focus is instead on making sure that Froome has the space he needs to refine and improve his form.
“We have to see how things evolve. We hope that he can get to a higher level than last year and I think that’s very possible. We just need to give him a bit more time,” Calström told VeloNews.
“If you think about all the difficult things that have happened for him in the last few years of course it’s been very hard but now he’s on track and even with the knee injury it took a bit of extra time for him but now he’s had a solid training period. We’ll see how things evolve after Coppi e Bartali.”
It’s undecided where Froome will race next. He provisionally has the Tour of Turkey, Tour de Romandie, Dauphiné and the Tour on his schedule, but much will depend on how his body responds after such a long layoff from competitive cycling.
“That could be a scenario but we need to take it step-by-step and see how it evolves. I don’t think we should make a precise calendar because it’s going to depend on how things go. We’ll have to adapt with how his form goes and what he shows in racing and training.”
When asked if he had faith in Froome returning to the level that saw him dominate stage racing for a number of years, Calström said:
“Physically I think that it’s possible and we all know how motivated he is. I don’t see any problems with that but of course the most important thing is to give tranquility so he can do his best in training and then racing. Of course with such a big crash and then the sickness it takes time, there’s no question about that but I do think that he has the engine to come back.”
One potential caveat to all of this might be the fact that the sport hasn’t waited for Froome and the quality of stage racing has moved on a notch since 2018, the last year in which Froome won a grand tour.
“I think that the sport has changed a lot over the last couple of years. There are a lot of young guys who have come in so it’s a bit of a different way of racing. It means that it’s difficult to say whether him coming back to his old level is enough to win again but I think that there’s a great possibility that he can come back to his level. We’ll have to see where that lives when it comes to fighting with the other guys.”
The question marks over Froome’s program and level means that it’s impossible for Israel-Premier Tech to plan a Tour de France GC challenge. Last year the team eased the pressure on Froome by giving more responsibility to Michael Woods but the team are more set up to hunt stage wins than mount a realistic tilt at the yellow jersey at this point. Calström admitted that it was too early to consider challenging for the yellow jersey and that they currently had no out-and-out leader for July.
“At the moment we have to plan like we don’t because we don’t know if Chris is back at that moment. It’s impossible to predict so we can’t plan like there’s a GC leader at the moment,” he said. “It’s better for us and for Michael and Jakob not to focus on the GC because there are teams more suited to that. So it would be more for us to hunt stages and then maybe surprise for a jersey but I don’t think that we can really focus too much on GC.”
WorldTour status in doubt?
The injuries, bad luck and sickness have all meant that the team has struggled for UCI points this year. The team currently sits 18th in the UCI rankings and that’s the last spot in the governing body’s standings when it comes to handing out WorldTour licenses for next season.
A number of teams have stepped up this season, with Arkéa-Samsic and TotalEnergies both in the outperforming a number of current WorldTour teams.
The season is long, and we’re only in March, but Calström admitted that his squad needed to improve over the coming weeks.
“We have a bad trajectory, there’s no question,” he said.
“That’s due to our riders being sick. Once we start to get back to our normal level I think that will change so I’m not worried about it. Of course if that continues then it would be a different story but we’re working at getting our guys back to their best. We’re not focused on our position in the ranking, we’re focussing on getting our riders back to their best racing.”
There are a number of teams that have changed their approach to racing this season because the incentive of chasing UCI points is so important. Certain teams have sacrificed their slim chances of winning in certain races in order to occupy as many top-10 positions as possible in order to snaffle up as many points as they can. For now Calström isn’t looking at altering Israel-Premier Tech’s current approach.
“This all depends on what riders we have at specific races. If we go to a race with a clear possible winner then we’ll do our best to win. If we don’t have a clear winner then we’ll have a different strategy. That’s what a lot of teams are doing. They’re trying to have two or three guys in the top ten if they don’t have a clear winner. Teams are just using their resources in the best possible way,” he said.
If the team don’t arrest their current trajectory then missing out on a WorldTour spot in 2023 could become a genuine prospect. What that means for the team is unclear. When asked if the team’s future could be undermined or in doubt if that happened, Calström took a step back and used last year’s experience as an example of how his squad can bounce back.
“That’s not something we’ve talked about so I can’t answer that. That’s a question to look at closer to that time but we’re convinced that it won’t happen. We’re not looking at that option. We just need to get everyone healthy. Then the results will come. Last year we finished tenth in the ranking and we didn’t have a great start to the year. It’s a long season with a lot of races and a lot can change.”