“We did the lead out often last year but with [Sam] Bennett it didn’t turn out well. New Sam is a powerhouse. He’s a totally different type of sprinter to Bennett – I was waiting for a fast sprinter. Sam Bennett is a good friend of mine, but in the end it’s business and we want to win.”
Danny van Poppel doesn’t mince his words just a few moments after leading his new teammate, Sam Welsford, to victory in their first race of the season at the Tour Down Under. It could be his typical Dutch directness, or it could be that Van Poppel finally has found a release after some frustrating seasons with Bora-Hansgrohe. The disappointment of sprinters when they keep losing – like Sam Bennett did last season – is something that’s widely reported on, but what of the teammates they let down along the way? Van Poppel’s answers are a clear sign that it cuts them as deep, too.
The Dutch rider is making a name for himself as the lead out man who can rival the likes of Michael Mørkøv – the Danish rider who is known for leading the likes of Mark Cavendish and Fabio Jakobsen to victory at Quick-Step in years gone by. Van Poppel is regarded in the peloton as having a special talent to see gaps where there aren’t any, with a fortune-teller like sixth sense where he knows what’s going to happen before anyone else. After today’s victory in the opening stage Down Under, winner Welsford also commented on Van Poppel’s unique abilities.
“Van Poppel was amazing, he was rallying us in the last three kilometres keeping us calm and telling us where to go. Everyone says he can almost see it before it happens, he can see stuff in slow motion,” Welsford gushed. “That’s such a good strength to have in the team. He was incredible in the last 400 metres, what he did for me in the sprint, I was like, this is already hard for me in the wheel and then I had to kick. But that’s what sprinting is all about, having that last guy.”
Bora-Hansgrohe might have made the biggest headlines by signing Primož Roglič for the Grand Tours this year, but their acquisition of Welsford is already proving to be extremely fortuitous when the roads are flat. The German team are certainly in tune with the changing demands of sprint leadouts, something that Welsford admits he missed at his previous Team DSM.
“[Bora] are more patient. You can’t afford to waste guys for no reason in the lead outs now,” he explained. “Every minute you can save a guy helps you in the final, especially with how fast the speeds are now. The days are gone where you can have five guys into the last two kilometres, you can have two guys inside three kilometres and you have to kind of surf.”
Although the 2024 season is only in its infancy, the signs point to Bora-Hansgrohe having all bases covered when it comes to the year ahead. Whether its through partnerships with major brands like Red Bull, or finding the budget to sign some of the sport’s biggest stars, this is a squad that wants superteam status. Sam Welsford is a key part of the puzzle to helping them get there.
“He has so much power from the track. When we do a lead out like this, guys like Kittel, Greipel, Welsford, they can do it. Sam’s only been riding in the WorldTour for two years so everything is new to him and he’s still super hungry,” Van Poppel explained. “He can be the new sprinter with us, it’s a perfect combination I think.”
When it comes to which new sprinter has the most potential to become one of the greatest, the word within the peloton itself should be the most trusted. Van Poppel’s experience and his straightforward honesty in his answers might be harsh for those he criticises, but also add plenty of validity when he says he believes a sprinter is the next big thing. Support from your teammate is one only one part of it, however, confidence for a fast man also needs to come from within. As he lunged across the finish line first in the baking sun on the roads of Tanunda, beating the likes of Caleb Ewan and throwing his arms in the air triumphantly, Welsford’s belief in his new chapter with Bora-Hansgrohe skyrocketed.
“Sprinters feed off confidence and the only time you can get that is with a good result,” Welsford says. “For us to get that first win of the season as a team, first race together, is a good sign to see what we can do together. We did a training camp in Majorca where we did a couple of simulation efforts but you don’t need too much training when you’ve got Danny van Poppel and Ryan Mullen and all the boys in front of you. They’re pretty special.”