Surprise winner of the Santos Tour Down Under at the end of January, Tom-Jelte Slagter (Team Blanco) is aiming for other successful performances to back up his current position of UCI WorldTour leader. The 23-year-old Dutch rider will be in the running at the Tirreno-Adriatico from March 6th to 12th and Milan-Sanremo on March 16th.
Until the age of 17, you were a speed skater. What made you switch to cycling ?
Skating was my sport and I cycled in summer to keep in shape. Today itâ€™s the opposite: Iâ€™m a full-time cyclist and in winter I sometimes skate two hours a day as a diversion. The transition was natural: I realised that I wouldnâ€™t be one of the best in the world in ice skating. So I turned to cycling and started to get results.
So it is the pleasure of winning that spurs you on?
I really like to win and I always need to win. I donâ€™t come from a family where cycling is a kind of religion, even if my dad enjoys riding himself. I'm someone who needs sports results to go further in my career and personal life.
Bearing that in mind, the fact that you didnâ€™t win any events during your first two seasons as a professional, even at a minor level, didnâ€™t frustrate or discourage you a little?
I was here mostly to learn from my team colleagues. I observed and looked around me to try to see how to do things and take the right direction. I was sometimes close to the winner. We sometimes finished together in the same group and he raised his hands just ahead of me. I was sure that my time would come...
Your first victory as a professional came at the beginning of your third season. And it was directly in a UCI WorldTour event...
At the time I didnâ€™t fully realise. Itâ€™s still hard to believe. Of course I had prepared seriously for the Santos Tour Down Under and I was one of the team leaders, together with Wilco Keldermann. But to imagine that I would win... in fact everything went perfectly, my confidence grew as the days went on and the team helped me control the situation.
So here you are, the first leader of the UCI WorldTour in 2013!
The real shock is when you go onto the Internet and you see: Slagter, winner of the Santos Tour Down Under, then Slagter, leader of the UCI WorldTour. I mean to say! Itâ€™s my name, with the little Dutch flag alongside, right at the top of the rankings. It is a first for me since turning pro.
How long can you stay leader of the UCI WorldTour?
It all depends on my result in the Tirreno-Adriatico. Some riders will earn points at the same time in Paris-Nice, so I will need to consolidate my position by going for victory at some finishes. Our leader for the overall classification will be Bauke Mollema, who is stronger than me in the time trials and the long mountain passes. My main task is as his teammate. But if I have the chance to clock up some UCI WorldTour points, I wonâ€™t say no.
Is the final ranking a goal for you now?
I am going to concentrate on each race as it comes. But I am the current leader and that gives me a certain responsibility. I should look to a good final position. A top 5 or top 10 seems out of reach when you see the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins who are capable of playing the leading roles. I will do my best. A place in the top 15 would be outstanding for me.
After Tirreno-Adriatico, you will discover Milan-Sanremo. What do you expect there?
I heard from the riders in the team that it is one of the most beautiful races. Last year I went training just for fun in the Cipressa and the Poggio [the main final hills, located 22.1km and 6.2km from the finish, Ed.]. I like these climbs, they suit explosive riders like me. However I don't know how to handle the distance of 298km. I will help my leaders and the objective will be to learn.
You worked very hard this winter and you are strong for the beginning of the season. How can you keep this up?
Each year, itâ€™s the same question. As an Under-23 rider, I did well quite early. Last year, I finished 3rd in a stage of the Tour dâ€™Oman and 6th overall. But, itâ€™s true that you have to last the distance. After the three Ardennes classics (Amstel Gold Race, FlĂ¨che Wallonne, LiĂ¨ge-Bastogne-LiĂ¨ge), I will rest for at least a week. The goal is to continue to perform well at least through to the World Championships (according to Team Blanco coach Jan Boven, Tom-Jelte Slagter could sit out the grand tours this season and concentrate on the classics in August in September with a view to collecting more UCI WorldTour points).
What has you victory in the Tour Down Under changed for you?
Itâ€™s a big boost for my legs and for my mind. I knew I could finish in the top 10 of a UCI WorldTour race. Now I know it is possible to win and that makes a huge difference. I am more motivated and more confident. I assume my victory will reinforce my place in the team too. But at Blanco, I had already been given chances. If they think you can win, they support you whatever your age.
So â€śThe Butcherâ€ť is going to strike again?
(He laughs.) Slagter means â€śbutcherâ€ť in Dutch, hence my nickname. But Andre Greipel (the German sprinter from Lotto-Belisol) found a new one in Australia. He called me the â€śPocket Rocketâ€ť. That is even better!