If you have been paying attention to the Giro d'Italia, then one team may well have been particularly conspicuous this year. Not in the same way as Ineos Grenadiers, with their mountain train at the front of the peloton, but through their continued presence. It is hard to miss the high-visibility helmets of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert.
The Wallonian team are one of the three teams to have two riders in the top 12 on general classification, along with Bora-Hansgrohe and Bahrian-Victorious. Domenico Pozzovio and Jan Hirt might not be the most heralded of GC riders for this Grand Tour, but they are both still up there, with Pozzovivo one of the five riders within 61 seconds of each other at the top.
In just 15 stages so far, they have been in the top-five nine separate times, including Biniam Girmay's historic win on stage ten, which is more than any other team. Not bad for the team which probably has the smallest budget in the WorldTour. The team with reportedly the biggest, Ineos Grenadiers, has achieved four top-fives at this race.
None of this is particularly a surprise to their directeur sportif Aike Visbeek. Speaking from the Veenendaal-Veenendaal Classic, he tells Cycling Weekly: "I was hopeful, but we are doing really good. I think we will walk away with some more results. It's not unexpected, we had a strong Vuelta a España last year."
The results haven't come from nowhere. The team started the season winning from the beginning, with Biniam Girmay taking one of the days at the Challenge Mallorca, the traditional warm up even at the end of January.
Intermarché went on to have a tremendous Classics campaign, with three top tens in WorldTour one-day races before Girmay made history by winning Gent-Wevelgem at the end of March, cementing his place at the top of the sport.
"The mood is from the Classics, the confidence from there," Visbeek explains. "We were also second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with Quinten Hermans. That's the vibe you see here, that's the vibe you see at the Giro. If you work together as a team, you can achieve great things. That has really sunk in. Before it was more individual, but now it's more together."
Intermarché have already won eight races this season, just two behind their total for all of 2021, and have emerged as a genuine power.
As a result of their success this year, they have been insulated from the relegation battle, which has dogged their fellow Belgian team Lotto-Soudal, and others including Israel-Premier Tech. Their consistent performances have seen them claim enough UCI points to rise above the mess involving other teams.
"If we were not serious and thought about points at the beginning of the season, then we would need to focus on it for the rest of the year, and that would create less opportunities..." Visbeek says.
"If we want to create a good situation for the whole team then we need a good start, and that is what we did. I don't have to look at the points ranking now to decide the leader. Also for the riders, they are not stupid. It's easier for us to sign riders now, because we will stay in the WorldTour."
That can't be said of both Lotto and Israel, who are in danger of missing out when WorldTour licences get handed out for 2023 and beyond — both Alpecin-Fenix and Arkea Samsic have declared their ambition to join the top table, and have more points than their established counterparts.
"We had a good start to the season, and that was one of my main goals for this winter," Visbeek says. "We could notch everything up a bit. We had a clear goal, we wanted to stay in the WorldTour, I think we were 17th in the ranking. If we wanted to have a future, we had to take it seriously.
"As a small team with the smallest budget in the WorldTour, we really have to stick together, and make it work. That also united us. From February it was already clear that we had to start chasing for sprints and things like that."
One of the big things that has changed at Intermarché is the way they race. A few years ago, the Belgian team were classic breakaway fodder at the big races, sending riders up the road just for the sake of sending riders up the road. It was the squad of Yoann Offredo, a perennial escapee at the Tour de France, without much to show for it.
Now, they have a plan. "The main big change is that we ride with a different strategy," Visbeek explains. "Before it was about being in the breakaway and showing ourselves, and when I arrived I made changes to that strategy. We want to be in breaks that have a chance of going to the finish, and if we don't see a chance, then we focus all of our resources on the bunch sprint."
This strategy has been seen at this Giro: on stages where there will be a guaranteed sprint, everything has been held back for Girmay, while on others, riders have been sent up the road to challenge. On stage 12 this almost paid dividends, as Lorenzo Rota finished second.
It helps that they have actual sprint options in Girmay and Alexander Kristoff now, but there has also been a change in mentality. Their GC ambitions have been bolstered, and they are not afraid to try things either, this is coupled with fresh energy on things that can be improved for the riders.
"We made big strides in performance, training wise, in nutrition, and on equipment, Cube developed a climbing bike for us, and we made the next step," Visbeek says.
The team is not one of big stars, they are still the underdog most of the time, especially with that low wage budget. Aside from Girmay and Kristoff, they're a squad of journeymen, but this is helping foster the right vibe within the team.
"We don't have really big big expectations," Visbeek says. "Obviously it grows, last year we were having press conferences and there were no journalists showing up, this year it was already a lot busier. We have same family atmosphere, the same DNA in the riders."
Intermarché are still keen to foster that underdog spirit, despite their growing success. Visbeek is keen to stress that they are ready for things to dip as well as continued growth; he points to Alpecin-Fenix's tremendous 2021 as something they want to ape.
"It's good for the sport," he says. "You see the reaction of the people that they like the underdog. You saw that at Gent-Wevelgem with Biniam. It was him, but it was also a small team that won a Classic, which made it extra big. Sometimes you have to pinch yourselves because it's going so well.
"We are in a good flow, and everything is going well. Sometimes there will be a headwind, but we have the confidence that we are getting it right."
One star of now and the future that the team has is Girmay. The first black African to win a Belgian Classic, the first to win a Grand Tour stage, he could be era-defining. The team have tied him down until 2026, a huge deal for an outfit as small as Intermarché. It feels like he chose it because of how hard they have already worked for him.
"Bini was already a good rider when we signed him, he had a lot of teams interested, but I'm not sure they realised what was involved," Visbeek says. "When you come from Eritrea, it's not easy to fly in and out, and then visas to get everywhere too, it's not easy. You have to take more things in consideration.
"Now he is becoming a star, we have one person for media with him, we have created some people around him to deal with his situation. It's an eye opener for us, especially at Frankfurt. We have to think about that."
Despite his success and growing stature, it is likely the team will stick to the plan they made at the beginning of the year and not send him to the Tour de France. At just 22, the Eritrean has time to grow and thrive on the brightest stage later in his career, and will continue on his allocated programme, once he has recovered from his eye injury.
"At the moment, it is not our plan," Visbeek explains. "We have a plan for August and September with clear goals there. His next race will probably be the Eritrea national championships. The thing that decides most of this is his injury and what his doctors say, but at the moment we will leave his plan as it is.
"Biniam is a top cyclist, his goal is to win races, not to just win the Tour de France. At the moment, it is also in the mind to not be busy with that."
For now, Intermarché will focus on getting the most out of the rest of the Giro, but after next week, expect them to be sticking around at the top for a while longer, too.
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