Gerald Ciolek returns to racing today in Belgium after his surprise Milan-San Remo triumph. One week ago, the German riding for an African wildcard team, MTN-Qhubeka, made the final group over the Poggio and out-kicked Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
At home in Cologne over the last week he has had some time to take it all in before returning to the factory, today starting the Three Days of De Panne.
“I celebrated during a nice dinner with friends and family. It really just felt like a usual week, with two days off and then back on the bike training,” Ciolek told Cycling Weekly this morning.
The star tucked himself in the corner, next to the start along North Sea. He was not trying to avoid fans, but trying to escape the freezing wind. After all, he remains a bit of an unknown and the fans do not bother him like Sagan or Mark Cavendish.
Sagan said that he underestimated Ciolek as the race ripped down the Poggio and towards the line in San Remo. Ciolek realised that and used to his advantage.
“I had an advantage. [Sagan] should’ve had me on his list because I was always in the front for the sprints. I’m not one of the world’s best sprinters, but I’m always up in the bunch sprints and I’m quite fast. It was quite an advantage for me.”
Ciolek added that besides the win and celebration, the cold and bad weather still remain on his mind. The bus ride around a snowed-over Passo del Turchino was a topic of discussion when he dined with his friends.
Part of the story, too, was MTN-Qhubeka. It became cycling’s first African professional team this year. It consists mainly of Africans, but has a handful of Euros mixed in, like Ciolek.
Songezo Jim, from South Africa, became Milan-San Remo’s first black African participant on Sunday. He helped Ciolek until around 50 kilometres remaining.
“[It’s] a great story, we were there as a wildcard team and we took home the victory,” Ciolek said. “If you look at the riders who were racing in Milan-San Remo, like Songezo Jim, who just learnt to ride the bike a few years ago. These are the great stories beside the race.”
Ciolek looks outside. The announcer calls off the final few names. Soon, he will have to step into the cold and begin his first race back after San Remo.
De Panne is just as important as the team received a wildcard invitation to race. For many of its riders, like Eritrean Jani Tewelde and Algerian Youcef Reguigui, it feels as big as the Tour de France.
“Every race is a big race, even this race,” Ciolek added. “I just spoke to our sports director, who said that five of our seven riders this is the biggest race they’ve ever done.”