Louis Meintjes and Team Dimension Data have a plan. It is not a cunning plan, it is a simple enough one — to build Meintjes into a rider who could become the first African to stand on the podium of the Tour de France in the near future.
That plan will take a huge step this week as Meintjes lines up with a Dimension Data squad that includes five Africans, four of them South Africans.
Meintjes is the obvious choice as team leader and "protected" rider for the three weeks of the Giro, starting in Jerusalem on Friday, but he still believes he has to earn that position.
"I guess we still have to see who has what role in the end," said Meintjes from Andorra on Sunday. "That’s the way it is with these grand tours. First, I need to have the legs to stay up there. The start of the season has been a bit up and down. If the first few days go well, then I can be team leader and the other guys can support me. But I first have to validate that position."
Meintjes has the grand tour history to justify being team leader. He finished 10th in the 2015 Vuelta a Espana and was eighth overall in the Tour de France in 2016 and 2017. He will be backed up by Australian Ben O’Connor, who took a stage win and won the young rider’s jersey with a fine seventh on general classification in the recent Tour of the Alps.
"I won’t say that it’s going to be that much different for me riding as a team leader than from the other grand tours," said Meintjes. "With this grand tour there is still a lot of uncertainty. It’s nice when you can go to a race with confidence and you can say that you are at least going to be in the front group.
"Riding in a grand tour is just trying to control as much as you can. It’s a three-week test where if you make one mistake … you can throw away all the work you have done up to that point.
"There’s no time to say, ‘I’ll relax today and make it up tomorrow’. You have to be on the ball the whole time."
Meintjes likes the Giro route and believes that "on paper" it should be a good one for him. He says it is a little more technical than it looks and has had a look at three of the hilltop finishes. He won’t be riding the Tour de France in 2018 for the first time as he made his debut at the grandest of grand tours in 2015 but will take part in the Vuelta.
It is part of a long-term plan by Dimension Data’s team principal, Doug Ryder, to get an African on to the podium of the Tour de France.
"Nothing’s impossible," said Meintjes. "That’s the dream — to get to the top of the Tour, and that’s what we are working towards. The team has been really good with supporting me with the plan, looking at what we need to do to get there.
'Good for the team'
"We will look at the routes again for next year. It doesn’t make any sense for me to do the Giro again if the route doesn’t suit me. It is likely we’ll be going back to the Tour again, but it has to suit me and my strengths, and be good for the team. You will see me back at the Tour soon."
Meintjes has no results to show so far this season, but, as with most plans, the numbers tell another story.
"In December, January, February, the numbers from training were looking really good. It looked like it I was heading towards a really successful first part of the season. But, when I went over to Europe, things just kind of stood still."
He said "there’s been a lot of hard work and preparations done. It’s just a little bit of the unexplained. The last few weeks I’ve been feeling better as each day goes on. There is at least still some hope, but there is a little uncertainty. I just want to see what I can get out of this race. If I feel good and I can just perform and show I can race with the top guys … that will be really good to take away from this Giro."
Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka squad at the Giro d’Italia: Louis Meintjes, Jacques Janse van Rensburg, Ryan Gibbons, Jaco Venter (all SA), Ben O’Connor (Australia), Natnael Berhane (Eritrea), Igor Anton (Spain), Ben King (US)