In His Own Words: Sport Director Neil Stephens Previews La Rioja and Pais Vasco

Sun 31 Mar 2013

Daryl Impey scored his first WorldTour victory at Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco last year. Back this year with the form needed to repeat the feat, Impey is one of several riders ORICA-GreenEDGE can look to in their quest for stage wins at the second Spanish stage race of the season. Before they begin the six day tour on Monday, the team will race the one day Vuelta Ciclista La Rioja on Sunday. In his own words, Sport Director Neil Stephens previews both races below.

La Rioja is a bit of a hit out for the team before the start of the Pais Vasco. We don’t have identical line-ups for La Rioja and Pais Vasco, but there is some overlap. A few of the guys who have spent more time training than racing lately will have a warm-up race at La Rioja on Sunday before starting Pais Vasco on Monday. The opening stage of Pais Vasco is tough and would be made even tougher without La Rioja to open up the legs first.

Many years ago, La Rioja was a three day race. Because of the economy, it’s gone down to a single day race. Last year, La Rioja was won by a two man breakaway. Sixty riders contested the final podium spot. We’ll hope to try to get some sort of bunch together at the finish.

We’re bringing fast guys like Michael Matthews, Daryl Impey and Leigh Howard. Michael Albasini and Simon Clarke know how to win from a small bunch. We also have some good lead out riders with us in Brett Lancaster, Wesley Sulzberger and Travis Meyer. Each of our riders will have a specific role dedicated to assisting the team in pulling off the win.

A few other WorldTour teams will race La Rioja. The competition on Sunday won’t be as high as the competition at Pais Vasco, but winning will still be tough.

Come Monday, we send home Brett Lancaster, Leigh Howard and Travis Meyer and welcome Christian Meier, Pieter Weening and Simon Gerrans. Our team objective with Pais Vasco is very much like our goal last year. We’re here to go after stage wins. I’ll review the roster with you now and explain how I anticipate each of our riders supporting this goal.

Christian Meier: Fantastic work by Christian one week ago to win the two sprint jerseys at Tour of Catalunya. I was concerned about how he would recover after so many attacking days early on in the tour. He said he’s bounced back fresh and is ready to go. Christian is a rider that always puts in a huge effort, and he rides even harder for the boys than he does for himself.

Daryl Impey: The winner of stage two last year will play a major support role for his teammates this year as well as get some chances of his own. Daryl’s climbing well and it’s clear he’s developing into a really good all-rounder. He’s gaining experience in getting to the end of a hard stage, and we expect him to be at the finish of most of the difficult days.

Michael Albasini: He took a fine win in Paris-Nice, and I was quite eager for him to do Milan-Sanremo with the form he had. He said that he was not quite 100% and wanted to brush up a little bit before his next block of racing. Michael has been training at altitude in Tenerife. He was a little bit sick there but has bounced back well. With his minor illness and hard block of training, he’s not quite sure how well he’ll go at Pais Vasco. He knows he feels good while training but that doesn’t always mean it will translate to feeling good while racing. If it does, the race suits him. He’s won here in the past, and there are a couple of stages that could be right down his alley.

Michael Matthews: He’s a rider coming in off of an injury. Theoretically, the terrain suits him. He’s a funny one; a new addition to the team this year and we’re still finding our way with him. He can do a little bit of everything. He’s a critical piece of our lead out train and good enough to take out a bunch sprint from a small group. Towards the finish when other leaders have had their opportunities, Michael may see some of his own.

Pieter Weening: He’s our only rider that could do something on the overall. Last year, we didn’t bring any riders that could have targeted general classification. Pieter definitely can. With that said, our primary goal is to win stages, and Pieter may have to work for his teammates, forgoing any personal ambitions. I’ll leave him as the last option to work for the other boys. He’s been at the Tenerife altitude camp and is in good form. I’d like him to be able to go after a decent overall GC if he’s not called to duty for his teammates.

Simon Clarke: Like Albasini, Simon isn’t quite sure where his form is because he hasn’t raced as much this season as he did last year at this time. Pais Vasco is an important objective for him after altitude camp in Tenerife. He’s shown that he can do well at lumpy, hard races after winning the mountain classification at the Vuelta last year. Simon will be a key support rider for Gerro [Simon Gerrans] and may see his own chances later in the week.

Simon Gerrans: Catalunya and Pais Vasco together are a big part of Gerro’s prep for the Ardennes. There are a couple of stages for him, beginning with a very fast day of racing, and we’re hoping to see him pull of a stage win. We’ll be fully dedicated to Simon during the first half of the race.

Wesley Sulzberger: He’s been going really well with a strong start to the year. Like Christian, Wes is the sort of rider that is willing to turn himself inside out for his teammates. We’ll see him play an important support rolemostly during the first half of each stage.

I live in the Basque Country, and I know these roads and this race well. Pais Vasco is a difficult race in terms of undulating terrain and rough weather. We race over lumpy, short hard climbs making for aggressive racing day after day. There’s nothing easy about this race.

It’s the fast, punchy rider that can win here. Look at the riders we’re bringing. They all excel over this terrain. They know how to punch their way up little climbs or sprint from a small bunch that makes it to the line together. They can get into breaks and stay away. Last year, we didn’t have anyone to do the two big mountain stages. This year, we have Pieter here for that.

I want to see the team win at least one stage and be present in several others. If they can do that, that’s enough for me. It’s also important that Gerro feels he’s furthered his condition in preparation for the Ardennes by this time next week.

ORICA-GreenEDGE for Vuelta Ciclista La Rioja:

Brett Lancaster
Daryl Impey
Leigh Howard
Michael Albasini
Michael Matthews
Simon Clarke
Travis Meyer
Wesley Sulzberger 

ORICA-GreenEDGE for Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco:

Christian Meier
Daryl Impey
Michael Albasini
Michael Matthews
Pieter Weening
Simon Clarke
Simon Gerrans
Wesley Sulzberger