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Long live the sprint train: Intermarché doubles down on life in the fast lane

Belgian team builds out three leadout trains for 2023, with Biniam Girmay at the center of its sprinting ambitions.

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Long live the sprint train.

Intermarché-Circus-Wanty is pedaling against the trend of cycling’s super-teams’ obsession with grand tours, and is planting a flag firmly in bunch sprints in 2023.

With grand tour rosters reduced to eight riders, and the peloton’s major teams like UAE Team Emirates, Jumbo-Visma, and Ineos Grenadiers all but giving up on bringing top sprinters to the Tour de France, the Belgian WorldTour team is doubling down on mass gallops this season.

Team officials confirmed the squad will widen its sprinting base for 2023, and is building out a third sprint train that it can spread across the entire calendar.

“We are pleased that we made another step by putting on the rails a third sprint train,” performance manager Aike Visbeek said.

“We chose for a system with five sprinters, who will be divided following a meticulously defined program, to enable our young group of sprinters to successfully handle our very extended program of sprint races from January to October,” Visbeek said Monday.

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Having a dedicated sprint train is rare among the very top teams these days, so for Intermarché to commit to having three reveals how committed the Belgian-based squad is to sprints.

Anchored by the rising talent and budding superstar Biniam Girmay, the team is hoping to deliver wins often across the calendar from January to October.

The team’s other fleet of committed fast men for 2023 includes Niccolo Bonifazio, Arne Marit, Madis Mihkels, and Gerben Thijssen.

A few of those are not quite marquee names just yet, but steady top-fives and a few high-profile victories along the way could change that.

The team’s calendar will be revealed later this month, but officials are planning on bringing a competitive sprinter to just about every race across its three-race program in 2023.

Bucking the trend away from sprint trains

There are a lot of new faces for 2023. (Photo: ICW)

Despite a wealth of sprint talent across the peloton, many teams have pivoted away from putting a lot of resources into delivering a sprinter to the line.

Long gone are the days of Alessandro Petacchi winning a half-dozen stages in one grand tour thanks to an entire team working for him.

These days, the peloton’s biggest teams want the maximum return at the Tour de France, and that means targeting the yellow jersey.

With the gradual reduction of team rosters from nine (and historically even more) to eight, many teams have decided there isn’t enough room to bring a legitimate grand tour contender and a sprinter with full support.

Look at Jumbo-Visma.

The team cut loose Dylan Groenewegen in 2022 in part because they told him there wouldn’t be room for him at the Tour. Jayco-AlUla scooped him up, and he delivered with a stage victory at the Tour. Jumbo-Visma didn’t mind as it powered to its first yellow jersey in franchise history with Jonas Vingegaard.

Intermarché’s sprint commitment also reflects the team’s three-year plan to remain in the WorldTour.

Even with tweaks to the points system, top placings in a string of one-day races and smaller stage races will harvest the team plenty of UCI points to keep it firmly in the “safe zone” of the WorldTour rankings during the next relegation battle.

Intermarché also isn’t built out right now to target grand tour GC. It cut loose veteran GC contender Dominico Pozzovivo and kept another veteran in Rein Taaramäe.

Its top GC rider for 2023 is the South African Louis Meintjes, who enjoyed a revival in 2022 with a stage win at the Vuelta a España and seventh overall at the Tour.

With Girmay expected to make his Tour debut in 2023, Meintjes will do what he did last year, and mark the wheels as best he can in the mountains, and use his teammates to help protect his flanks on the flats.

A sprint train is ideally suited to do that. What a sprint train cannot do is help tow a GC contender across the Pyrénées and Alps.

Building a stronger base for 2023

The team’s bet on recruitment should pay dividends in 2023.
(Photo: ICW)

Intermarché was one of the most active teams on the transfer market in 2023, moving out 12 riders and bringing in 11. Bonifazio, Marit, and Mihkels all are part of the new-look bet on sprinters.

The emphasis on sprinting for 2023 comes as the Belgian team also invested heavily on its backroom staff and infrastructure improvements that the team hopes will pay dividends down the road.

“In order to continue the professionalization of our organization, we used our success of 2022 as a pillar,” Visbeek said. “The past six months we launched a new Continental development team, we expanded our nutrition cell, we set up a collaboration with the UC Louvain and we recruited new sports directors and a third trainer.”

Visbeek said the team is targeting peak performances at key moments to bring home results in every major race on the calendar.

“We worked hard behind the scenes the last couple of months to establish a planning with preparation and peak periods for each rider,” he said. “All expert groups were mobilized during several performance activities this winter to prepare our performance plan, which shows that our organization again made an important step forward.”

Those investments will be measured in the races, and in 2023, perhaps more than any other metric, it will be in the bunch sprints.

Girmay will have the support of a full leadout train at the Tour de France in 2023, something only the likes of Caleb Ewan or Mathieu van der Poel will enjoy in July.

Aike Visbeek is the performance manager for Intermarché-Circus-Wanty. (Photo: ICW)