He had been waiting for this for a very long time. Therefore, after raising his arms in Val-Revermont on Tuesday, Jake Stewart couldn’t help but to burst into tears. At 22, the British rider took advantage of the first stage of the Tour de l’Ain, slightly hilly, to show his versatility and outsprint a reduced bunch. The young man scored his first victory in the pro ranks and also became the second rider to win an international race with Groupama-FDJ after having passed through the development team. He obviously took the yellow jersey, but two mountainous stages are now coming.
“We came here with a plan. We’ve been saying for a while that the first stage of the Tour de l’Ain was perfect for me, so everyone was super motivated.” Jake Stewart knew that he had quite an opportunity on Tuesday, through the 152 kilometres joining Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne to Val-Revermont. After a very flat start to the stage, the relatively bumpy final could indeed benefit the young Englishman. However… “The issue is that there were no big teams of sprinters, so the responsibility of the chase could quickly come back to us”, said Franck Pineau. “Yet, we cannot control everything with just six riders. There were a few other sprinters, but we couldn’t afford to let a big group go in the front. Honestly, we managed that well.” After about ten kilometres, a trio made up of Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-EasyPost) and Mattis Lebeau (Nice Métropole Côte d’Azur) got away. “With these guys up front, you can’t of course let 5-6 minutes”, added Franck. “Clément went to pull, and he did a great job, as he’s used to. He gained some watts with the Giro. He had not raced since the French championship, it was his returning race, but he immediately got into the rhythm, which proves that he worked well”. The gap therefore did not get over the four-minute bar, and the Frenchman also received the support of two other teams at first. Fifty kilometres from the finish, as the ground became slightly harder, the breakaway’s lead was only two minutes. It was reduced to just one minute with thirty-five kilometres to go, when the riders crossed the line for the first time and approached one of the two’s final hills.
“It means so much”, Jake Stewart
“Fabian, who had to help Jake in the final, suffered a puncture at a very bad moment and was unable to come back on the peloton”, explained Franck. “We had only four guys left, with our three climbers who took good care of Jake. As a good road captain, Rudy also committed and gave a good momentum. It was nice work. We also told Lars that he absolutely had to follow the moves. We had to put one rider in front because the competition was still serious. Lars was going very well, and he did a great job today.” In this loop around Val-Revermont, the race was extremely lively, but no move managed to get a significant gap. Lars van den Berg entered a breakaway of eight men for a moment, but everything came back together twelve kilometres from the line, at the bottom of the decisive Plain Champ climb (1.5 km at 4.4%). At this moment, Quick-Step Alpha-Vinyl tried to launch Julian Alaphilippe’s attack, but it did not prove successful. At the top, Rudy Molard, Sébastien Reichenbach and… Jake Stewart were all in the top ten positions. “We told Jake that he needed to be in the top-20 in the climbs, or he would have to deal with the splits, and he was imperial”, claimed Franck. “He was always up there, in around tenth place. If you can do that, it means that you’re strong. He is certainly not a pure sprinter, but it is still not easy to be there at the top of the climbs”. “The guys were very strong and followed the moves in the last loop, so I was able to stay in the wheels and get over the last climb”, explained the British rider. “I just had to be patient, keep some energy, keep myself out of the wind and gamble that it would all come back together”. Other attacks did happen in the final, but the teams interested in a sprint regained control in the last four kilometres.
Yet, Rémi Cavagna tried to destroy the sprinters’ plans in the last kilometre. “Rudy and Seb did a great job approaching the last kilometre and then Lars was with me in the last kilometre, and he was super strong”, said Jake. “When Cavagna was in front at 600-700 meters, I told Lars to go because it was getting dangerous. He went early, brought Cavagna back, then a guy from Auber came over the top with me. I just opened up from there. I know my characteristics, I know I can go long in the sprint, so I wasn’t afraid of this. And in the end, I got there on the line.” On the line, precisely, the Englishman also took advantage of his excellent bike throw to beat Romain Cardis, on his left. Above all, he then took the very first win of his young career, which began in January 2019 with the “Conti”, and has continued since October 2020 with the WorldTeam. “I’m happy with this first professional victory, I’ve been chasing it for so long, it means so much,” said Jake while wiping away his tears. “I want to thank everyone who has helped me along the way: Groupama-FDJ, as a Junior, my family, my girlfriend Georgia. Everyone sacrificed so much for me to be here. To finally get this win is a massive weight off my shoulders. Today the team did an amazing job. Everyone knew their job, everyone did their work. I am so grateful to everyone on the team today. The team also did a lot at the start of the year, when I was ill, to help me recover. It’s emotional for me. This victory is for all the people who have supported me along the way and got me here, most importantly my family and Georgia who have been here every step of the way. It’s amazing”.
“A team victory, at all levels”, Franck Pineau
Franck Pineau was already alongside Jake Stewart when he came close to victory in August 2020 on the Tour du Limousin. On Tuesday, the French Sports Director could tell how much this day meant to the young Englishman, back at the highest level after suffering Crohn’s disease in the winter. “The first victory with the pros leaves a mark, it gives a particular relish”, insisted Franck. “This is even more the case for him as we did not know at the start of the year how his situation would evolve. I think it makes him really, really happy. We also feel that everyone is happy for him. It’s a special day. We like all the victories, but when you know what Jake has been through, it’s even nicer. We also have a thought for the medical staff around Jacky Maillot who did a lot of work. It’s really a team victory today, on all levels, as I also want to remember that the group was sensational”. A group that will start stage 2 with the yellow jersey, on Wednesday, for the first mountain stage of this 2022 Tour de l’Ain.