Nineteen-year-old Toyota CSA Academy member, Louis Meintjes, upstaged some of South Africa’s most experienced professionals to win the five-day Clover Lowveld road cycling stage race that finished in Graskop, Mpumalanga on Tuesday.
Meintjes claimed the overall title after six stages of high quality racing, 34 seconds ahead of reigning South African Elite road race champion, Darren Lill (Bonitas) and 58 seconds ahead of third placed Dennis van Niekerk, MTN Qhubeka’s stage race specialist.
It was a David and Goliath style victory in more ways than one. This is Meintjes’ first year out of the Junior ranks, a period in a bike racer’s life that’s usually one of the toughest as he’s forced to adjust to increased race distances and racing line-ups with far more depth, topped by the by the high-profile, established stars.
At this particular six-stage race, Meintjes was a member of a five-rider Toyota CSA Under-23 team, comprising upcoming Under-23 riders. They were up against the country’s two biggest professional teams, Bonitas (which started with 10 riders) and MTN Qhubeka (which started with eight riders).
“I went into the race with the intention of having a good result, but knew that winning would be a huge task in the circumstances. I’m obviously very happy with my result, but grateful to my team for their amazing support both on and off the bike,” said a weary, but satisfied Meintjes on Tuesday.
After conceding more than six minutes on the first stage to early leader, Gawie Combrink (Bonitas), it seemed even a podium finish would be bonus. But on Stage 2, Meintjes managed to finish third – behind Jason Bakke and Lill (both Bonitas) as the main field splintered on the final 20km ascent from Sabie to the finish at Graskop at the end of a tough 156km stage.
“That day was important for me because it was the stage I moved up to fourth on the GC and eliminated the main MTN team threat. Then I just had to focus on the three Bonitas riders ahead of me,” explained Meintjes.
Stage 4a, a 127km stage of six laps of the God’s Window circuit saw Lill take the overall lead from teammate and early leader, Combrink. Meintjes, third on the stage, moved into a close second on the General Classification. The afternoon’s Stage 4b, a 7.5km hillclimb time trial up Kowyns Pass, became the battleground for the overall lead between Lill, the seasoned campaigner and Meintjes, the talented upstart.
“I managed to finish third on the stage, but more importantly, I beat Lill by 40 seconds, which gave me a 34-second lead going into the final stage. I needed to make sure I kept Lill and Van Niekerk (third at 58 seconds) close to me on the last stage if I wanted to win the race.”
Meintjes rode the final 96km stage sensibly, letting his team set the pace on the front of the main bunch for the first 70km and then taking the final kilometres into his own hands after a race-lead threatening solo attack by Van Niekerk. In the end Van Niekerk claimed the stage win just ahead of Lill with Meintjes third, losing no time to his rivals and in the process securing the overall victory.
“Louis is a phenomenon and has a very bright future. He is humble, calm and smart as well as physically suited to stage racing success,” said former professional, Nic White, manager of the Toyota CSA Academy. “But it’s important to remember that he had the support of a committed, talented young team, which helped facilitate this win. And our team manager for the race, Mark van der Merwe did a great job too.”
Meintjes, who won a stage in a tour in Belgium earlier this year and finished second in both the Under-23 national road race and time trial championships, is now focused on success at the inaugural Tour de Free State later this month and the 2011 Under-23 World Road Championships in Norway next month.