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On a roll: how Intermarché-Circus-Wanty are capitalising in 2023's early battles

By Alasdair Fotheringham,


It’s a long, long way from here to the final races of the 2023 road calendar, but in the earliest battles of the year one conclusion is clear: Intermarché-Circus-Wanty are certainly making themselves noticed.

It has to be said that the Belgian squad hardly had a bad start to 2022, either, as in February alone Biniam Girmay picked up a win in the Mallorca Challenge, Alexander Kristoff won the Clásica Almeria and Jan Hirt clinched a stage and the overall in the Tour of Oman. But this year the Belgian squad have so far set the bar even higher.

Even before Oman and Almeria, Intermarché-Circus-Wanty have already clinched four wins to date: three out of a possible five in the Mallorca Challenge series thanks to Kobe Goossens and Rui Costa and one in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana courtesy of Girmay.

Add in a second place in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race with France’s Hugo Page, a string of top 10 places in the Santos Tour Down Under and it’s no surprise that Intermarché-Circus-Wanty are currently topping the UCI Teams rankings, nearly 200 points clear of previous leaders UAE Team Emirates.

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"We wanted to start the season well and we had a couple of riders who were really motivated, as well as some new riders in the team like Rui Costa and Lilian Calmejane [fourth in one Mallorca race-Ed.]," Aike Visbeek, performance manager at the Belgian squad, told Cyclingnews at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.

"With Kobe Goossens, it was the plan [to start well] and with Bini’ we wanted to build up towards the Classics and this was an important period where we wanted to race hard with him.

"So you see several things came together, but the main goal was to start well with a couple of good results but also get some good teamwork. But we’ve had both, and I’m really happy with that."

Given its hilly second half, planning a strategy for stage 1 of Valenciana was in no way straightforward. But Visbeek says simply that "that’s the business we are in.

"Bini’ is very suitable for these kinds of courses, and we didn’t go to Mallorca and here with riders like Costa, Calmejane and Georg Zimmerman just to ride around. Because this is also our Tour de France squad.

"We are already working on the details now that we are going to use in the Tour. It's about these situations. The more you can do it together, the better feelings you’ll have and that's what we're practising."

Intermarché-Circus-Wanty have had a fairly hefty turnover of riders this winter, losing 12 riders including Kristoff, Domenico Pozzovivo, 2022 Liège-Bastogne-Liège runner-up Quinten Hermans and breakaway veteran Jan Bakelants amongst others, and with Costa, Calmejane and Dutch sprinter Mike Teunissen new signings. But if there have been plenty of alterations in the line-up, when it comes specifically to Girmay, Visbeek says they won’t be shifting their strategy much from last year’s gameplan. Not yet, anyway.

"Not much, because we are looking towards the Classics and only focussing on that for now," Visbeek says. "We‘re not yet thinking about the Tour. The only way we are focussing on the Tour" - where Girmay will make his debut this summer - "is by having the right guys together."

"But in terms of preparation, training, everything is 100% focussed on getting him ready for San Remo, [Tour of Flanders], E3, Paris-Roubaix and Amstel."

Although Girmay’s turn of speed in the final metres is no longer news, Visbeek says that his team have "more than once" been surprised at his ability to raise his game on the climbs. "If you look at that stage he won in the 2022 Giro, there were no more than 20 riders in the group," he pointed out. "On these days, guys like Bini’, Mathieu van der Poel or Wout van Aert can do something.

"Maybe they can’t do it on three days with climbs like that in a row, but he can do one day like that, and we saw it on Wednesday here in Valencia."

Girmay’s lead-out train is also a work in progress. Loïc Vliegen, new signing Teunissen and Adrien Petit all form part of that, Visbeek says. Even though Petit, unfortunately, broke his collarbone in Mallorca, "the depth we have in the team helps us also."

As for Girmay, his performance schedule is going so well that Verbeek says that "the focus will be training again, going to altitude and then he will come back in March for the Italian races," specifically the Trofeo Laigueglia on March 1st.

When it comes to what kind of rider Girmay really is, given his ability to both handle certain climbs and sprint well, Visbeek says the Eritrean is in the "same business as Mathieu, as Wout but also Michael Matthews, the ones who can handle the hilly sprint finishes.

"Everybody says the perfect race for Michael Matthews is the Amstel Gold Race, and I think that’s also true for Biniam. In that sense, you can compare him, but Biniam is also maybe a little more suited [than Matthews] for the Flemish races. Michael’s a little bit lighter, and Biniam’s a more powerful guy. That helps you on the real bigger power efforts like the Kwaremont or Paterberg."

Fast riders who can climb also tend to impact well at Milan-San Remo, too. "Absolutely. Last year he was in the first group but then [Giacomo] Nizzolo (Israel Premier Tech) crashed just in front of him and he [Girmay] lost contact. But we don’t have to hide the fact that when he’s healthy and we can keep building like we do now, we’re very motivated to get a good result with him there."

As for Intermarché-Circus-Wanty, where could the next win come? Intermarché are not taking part in the Etoile de Bessèges or Saudi Tour this week, but Costa, sixth in the first summit finish of Valenciana on Thursday, could well be a key factor in the GC battle in the Spanish stage race.

But there's also Girmay, of course, and while he crashed on stage 2, fortunately, it was without any serious consequences, his team told Cyclingnews later, meaning hopefully his chances of further wins on stages 3 and 5 remain intact. Further down the line, to judge by their excellent season start, the squad have every reason to set themselves some very ambitious goals, and not just with Girmay, either.

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