Johannesburg - Around this time last year, Louis Meintjes was watching the Tour de France from the sidelines, his race cut short by illness.
Today, the young South African will start the second-last stage of his second Tour in eighth place overall, having put down a marker as a man who could well be the first South African to win La Grand Boucle.
Riding for the Italian Lampre-Merida team, he was fourth on the 19th stage to Mont Blanc, just 23 seconds behind winner Romain Bardet of France.In the last few days, he has moved from 10th overall to ninth and now to eighth.
He is seven minutes and two seconds behind race leader and defending champion Chris Froome, and 42 seconds off Alejandro Valverde.
He has been clever and calm in how he has ridden, watching the wheel of Froome and the other name riders and ensuring he has been within touching distance of them. He has seldom looked troubled.At just 24, his best years lie ahead of him. Not finishing last year has driven him and raised his ambition and belief.
He finished 10th in last year’s Vuelta a Espana, the highest place by an African in a Grand Tour. He was ninth in the Criterium du Dauphine, the traditional pre-Tour de France shake-up race where the Tour contenders feel each other out.
“I’m happy I’ve been able to climb with the best. It’s so nice when the hard work pays off,” Meintjes told cyclingnews.com.
“It’s been pretty tough and just making no mistakes has been the hardest bit. My body is still feeling good; my legs are still feeling good, and it’s all about staying out of trouble and staying concentrated and not making any mistakes.”
A top 10 for Meintjes would be a grand finish for African cycling after Team Dimension Data won five stages through their British riders Mark Cavendish, who took four wins, and Steve Cummings.Meanwhile, Froome hit the deck but retained the yellow jersey on a crash-marred 146km mountain trek on Friday. The Briton crashed some 12km from the finish on a slippery descent and ended the stage on a teammate’s bike with cuts and bruises on his back and right elbow.
Shortly after Bardet lit up the race with an attack on the tricky descent towards the foot of the final ascent, Froome crashed on a right-hand bend. He was quickly back on Geraint Thomas’s bike and held firm in the favourites’ group.
AG2r-La Mondiale rider Bardet, who gave France their first win on this Tour, quickly caught early attacker Rui Costa in the climb, a 9.8km effort at an average gradient of eight percent, and went solo with 3.5km left. Froome, who crossed the line 36 seconds behind Bardet, now leads the Frenchman, who moved up from fifth to second overall, by 4min 11sec.
Dutchman Bauke Mollema, who started the day in second place overall, also crashed and eventually lost a massive 4:25.