You were back in Australia for the first time in three years over the European winter. How was it?
Luckily, during the pandemic my parents and brother and sister were able to come over to Europe, so that was good because our son, who’s two now, hadn’t been to Australia, so my extended family hadn’t met him. It was nice to see everyone. It was hard for us because we were stuck so far away. You’re not used to being away for that long – it’s something the European cyclists don’t really have to deal with.
Your team spent much of 2022 chasing UCI points to stave off WorldTour relegation. How did that pressure affect you?
To be honest, I don’t feel the pressure from the team so much. Obviously it was in the back of my mind, more towards the end of the season when I was doing races that aren’t typically my goal. It probably made me more motivated because I know the difference it can make. But at the season’s start, I already had big goals: San Remo, then the Giro, then the Tour. My main focus was on those. I knew if I did well in all those races, the points should take care of themselves.
The first part of the season didn’t go so well. First I got Covid, then a bad stomach bug that lasted over the San Remo period, then I missed a few of the Classics like Gent-Wevelgem and De Panne. I guess that set the tone a bit – then the Giro and the Tour were disappointing. The whole season wasn’t great, but it was a combination of a lot of things, bad luck and being sick. The points situation was just a bit of an extra stress on top of that.
Does Lotto-Dstny not being a WorldTour squad change things for you?
Not a whole lot. I don’t mind if we’re ProTeam, especially as we get to do all the races we were going to do anyway. I think my race programme will be exactly the same as it would be if we were a WorldTour team.
You’re one of the few sprinters who still believes they can win Milan-San Remo, despite the emergence of all-round challengers like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. What is the secret to making it happen?
I think it’s completely out of my hands, which is the frustrating thing about the race. I’ve been second twice [in 2018 and 2021] when a lone rider has been away. Because of that, I know it’s possible. The last time I was second there, Van Aert was third and Van der Poel fifth, so I know I can beat them. I was quite comfortable on the Poggio that year – that gives me hope I can still do it. It’s definitely becoming less of a sprinter’s Monument, but it’s the only one that I can win. I guess that’s the reason I’m so desperate to win it.
There used to be a clear sprinting hierarchy, spearheaded by riders such as Greipel, Kittel and Cavendish, but things are more open now. Do you think there’s a vacant spot for the top sprinter?
It’s changing all the time. Even if we look back at last season, Jakobsen was super-quick, but Philipsen won two stages of the Tour so you could say he was the better sprinter. Dylan Groenewegen was also really good. I had a bad year, Cavendish the same.
It’s definitely much more even now. Coming into a Tour de France sprint, for example, there were years where you knew that if Cav’s coming into it in position, he’s going to win. Now nobody knows who’s going to win. It’s always so close, and most of the sprints are won by half a wheel or sometimes a throw on the line. I think sprinting’s becoming more exciting now, just because there’s not really a dominant winner.
You’re entering your fifth season with Lotto-Dstny. Can you reflect on how the culture has changed?
A lot of the changes happened when I first came into the team. The biggest one was transitioning from the André Greipel era, with myself and some other newer guys joining and taking things in a different direction, at the same time as John Lelangue coming in as CEO.
If the team is changing direction again, this will probably be the year it’s going to happen. We have a new CEO and the team’s becoming a little more professional in terms of nutrition and looking at all the fine-tooth comb stuff that teams need to do.
How has fatherhood changed your approach to racing?
I remember once, I think it was Cav who said to me, ‘You can see all the sprinters in the bunch who are parents and the ones who aren’t.’ The ones that aren’t are much more crazy. I was a bit worried when I first had kids that maybe I’d be a little bit more scared, but it hasn’t happened yet. When I’m sprinting, I’m going for it and not thinking about the dangers. Once you do and are a bit too much on the brakes, I think your sprinting career is over. I’m happy that I still go into sprints quite fearless, and I’m hoping that doesn’t change.
With all the changes and relegation from the WorldTour, are you still happy with the team? Did you ever have any doubts about staying?
They’ve always been super-supportive of me, always looking to improve the leadout and develop the team to favour me. To be honest, I can’t ask for much more of them, and in return I hope I can perform, especially better than last year. But if I take away 2022, every other year with the team has been very successful for me.