Ever since 2010, when he won the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, Nokere-Koerse, and Memorial Samyn races all in one brilliant March, Jens Keukeleire has (deservedly) received mentions as an outsider and potential Top 10 candidate in many prognosticators’ Classics previews. The cobbled, one-day races have never been the strongest area for Orica-GreenEdge, but in Keukeleire, they have been developing a rider with a potential to contend in those races, though at least through 2014, his performances at the very biggest cobblestone-oriented events had not yielded top results.
That changed this spring. Keukeleire nabbed his first Top 10 in a WorldTour one-day race at E3 Harelbeke in March, signaling strong form and a potential for more success in the races to come, and then he delivered on that promise in last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, making it into the velodrome with the winning group to ultimately finish the Hell of the North in 6th place. It wasn’t a victory, and it wasn’t a podium, but it was Keukeleire’s strongest performance at the WorldTour level yet, and it was the team’s best ever placing in either of the Monument-level cobbled races. For the Australian outfit, that was plenty reason to celebrate. When Keukeleire found his way to the team bus after the finish in Roubaix, it was hugs all around from the team staff.
“If you look at the race I did, I had a lot of bad luck, and to be honest, a couple of times I thought, ‘This is over, my race is over here.’ But I know from previous editions that you can never give up here, always keep fighting, and you never know where you end up, and look I’m still Top 10 so I’m really happy,” Keukeleire said after the race.
Getting to this point was a matter of constant development, from a starting point with a fair bit of youth and inexperience.
“I’ve just been noticing that every year we’re getting stronger and stronger in these Classics,” Keukeleire said. “Four years ago, with the start of the team, we were really young. A team which lacked a little bit in experience, but every year we’re getting more and more experience, and stronger as well, and you can notice it in the races, not only here but in the other races as well, we know better how to ride, which moments we have to be in the front, and I think that’s only positive for the future.”
Keukeleire’s positive outlook is shared by the team management. Orica-GreenEdge general manager Shayne Bannan had plenty of good things to say about the Top 10 performance by his team’s rising Classics contender.
“We’re really happy with Jens’s progression,” Bannan told VeloHuman. “To finish 6th in Paris-Roubaix, at his age, we know he’s developing into a potential Roubaix winner. Maybe two or three years away, but what he showed today was something pretty special, for him as an individual and for us as a team. Our best result prior to today was Langeveld in 7th two or three years ago. So to come here and finish 6th, but a 6th that was only a few lengths away from getting a podium, it’s something really special, so we’re proud of him.”
Keukeleire isn’t the only up-and-coming talent on the Australian team’s roster. The team has a stable of riders aged twenty-six and younger that are already capable of contending on a variety of terrains, whether that’s the cobbles, the short, steep climbs of the Ardennes, or the Alpine ascents of the Grand Tours.
“It’s critical to have a mixture of young talent and a mixture of very good experience. The combination is a quite lethal combination if done correctly. We’re excited by the young talent we’ve got coming through, including the Yateses [Simon and Adam], Esteban [Chaves], Magnus Cort, [Michael] Matthews, and so on and so on. So we’re really looking to the next couple of years. Looking forward first of all to the Ardennes, and the Giro and the Tour, but we’re excited about the next couple of years,” Bannan said.
The “very good experience” element comes into play thanks to a number of veteran riders on the squad whose presence is critical to the development of the young stars. Proven Paris-Roubaix Top 10 talent Mathew Hayman, for instance, can offer the sort of guidance that only comes with years of riding on the cobblestones. Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix left Hayman with a mixture of emotions after a crash took him out of contention — “Just a bit gutted for myself, it was a pretty silly crash,” he told VeloHuman — but the 36-year-old Australian acknowledged that Keukeleire’s Top 10 was a big result that might lead to more and more big results to come.
“He had a couple of punctures, thought his race was over at different points, and to have him there at the finish and to know that it’s possible, I’m sure that’s going to give him a big boost of confidence for next year. I’ve been in the same situation, once you’ve been in the top 10, you realize that these things can happen,” Hayman said.