Wout Poels, Team Sky’s Dutch climber, is starting his third season with the team and has just signed a new contract that will keep him with the British squad until the end of the 2019 season. Arriving from Etixx for 2015 as a climber to support Chris Froome in the final miles of mountain stages, Poels quickly established himself with both the team and Froome, with whom he often shares rooms.
Was there something in the Dutch character that was similar to the British, that had sped his integration? “No. I tried, you know, I’ve been here three years, trying to make the team more Dutch, but I haven’t succeeded,” Poels laughs. “Actually, the one similarity is that the British are quite direct and they say what they think, like in the team bus after a race, the guys really say what they think – especially Luke Rowe – and you can print that! But really, I think the team suits my character. I can be myself here.”
Despite his closeness to Froome, his value to the team meant that he has thus far been spared the Tour-Vuelta, two Grand Tour programme and he was content to watch the Vuelta at home, where he saw Froome caught out on stage 15 to Formigal which effectively decided the outcome of the race in 2016. “Yeah,” drawls the smiling 29-year-old, “that was the stage where Chris said he made a bit of a tactical mistake. It’s impossible to say what would have happened if I had been beside him that day. Maybe if I had seen that he wasn’t in a good position in the peloton I could have persuaded him to ride differently, or maybe I would have listened to him and decided he was right.”
Froome, after all, is the man calling the shots in those situations where the team car is out of radio contact.
Poels is a remarkably jovial character, a smile never far from his lips and a rider with a ready supply of appalling jokes to keep up spirits. During one boring stage of the 2016 Tour he regaled his teammates and team car with a series of outrageous jokes, proving that race radios do indeed have a place in the World Tour peloton. “Some of them were really bad taste,” recalled sport director Nico Portal, “I was just praying nobody else was on the same frequency of race radio and picking them up! It was so funny.”
More seriously. though, Poels is not simply a mountain climbing lieutenant to Froome. He’s a winner in his own right, with a nice early-season stage race win in the 2016 Tour of Valencia followed, of course, by racking up Sky’s first Monumental classic win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
“The win in Spain was a good confidence boost,” he says. “It’s great for morale when hard work pays off and the team knew I wanted to go well in the Ardennes. Those Classics were going to be really important because I wanted to go to the Olympics but the Dutch manager coach was saying like I wasn’t a one-day rider and blah blah blah, that I was more of a stage race type. So I was like, ‘OK I really need to get a result in the Ardennes to show him. So I said to the team in January that I wanted to go to the Olympics, so the Ardennes were going to be important. I was fourth in the Fleche Wallonne, which was my best result there and a pretty good showing, I thought, but then when I won in Liege, well…” Poels laughs at the memory of his Rio-ticket winning sprint in Liege.
Of course, his Belgian Classic win backed up by other victories in Spain, and strong Tour performances have rekindled dormant ambition in Poels. “Yeah, I can climb and I can do a good time trial” (Poels won the Tour of Valencia time trial and was sixth in a strong field in his national championship) so maybe I can do well in week-long stage races. Why not? Now all you need to do is tell Dave (Brailsford) and Tim (Kerrison) that,” smiles Poels with a laugh that, this time, hints he’s not entirely joking.
“There was talk of doing the Giro this year, even though my goal is to help Chris win the Tour again. In the end its going to be Mikel (Landa) and Geraint (Thomas), so they flicked me for that!” — again punctuated by a laugh — “but one day I’d like to go for the GC in a Grand Tour. The thing is that this is such a strong team, Mikel was third on the podium in the Giro already, so its hard for me to stand up and say, ‘OK, listen, I want to go for the GC’ when I’ve not had results like that before. Hopefully my chance will come. I think the team would be nervous about me doing the Giro before the Tour and then not being 100 per cent for Chris in the Tour.”
The Giro-Tour doubleheader is extremely unlikely, but the early plan for 2017 is to test Poel’s capacity to cope with two Grand Tours in a season.
“The Tour and Vuelta is a possibility, but I’m not sure I can do two Grand Tours at a high level,” he says. “Maybe we’ll try that this season to see how I go. The thing is that riding the Tour is really mentally stressful. To do three weeks at that physical and mental level is hard. When you get to the end of the Tour and tell you, ‘Ah, OK, now the Vuelta,’ that’s mentally tough. You’re not really jumping for joy at that point. If I get the opportunity to lead the team then I really want to prepare the way I do for the Tour. Not just do the Tour and then do the Vuelta to see how it goes. If it went badly you wouldn’t get that opportunity again.”
As one of only two Dutch riders on Sky and the one with a higher profile than Danny Van Poppel, the Bradley Wiggins TUE Fancy Bears hack, Wiggins’ mystery package delivery at the 2011 Dauphine and team principal Dave Brailsford’s subsequent appearance in front of a British parliament select committee, you might expect Poels to have been bombarded by calls about a story that is big news in the UK.
“Yeah, it’s not nice when there’s that stuff going on, it’s not nice to read but it’s not really in my control,” he says. “I can’t do anything about it but I hope they solve it really quickly. For the moment I’m focusing on my training, doing my thing and trying to do good races again. Actually, it’s not like a really big story in the Dutch media. There have been a few things on cycling websites, but not so much in the papers – I haven’t had any calls from Dutch journalists.”