LEON, Spain (VN) — Not many people had even heard of Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DMC) before last year’s penultimate stage in the Giro d’Italia.
One massive attack over the Mortirolo and up the Stelvio shot De Gendt’s profile sky high. That old school, long-distance surge threw everyone into panic and delivered the 26-year-old Belgian the stage win and a spot on the podium the next day in Milano.
As the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) take aim at Ryder Hesjedal’s (Garmin-Sharp) pink jersey in this year’s Giro, De Gendt is turning his attention to the Tour de France.
“I am going back to the Tour,” De Gendt told VeloNews. “Maybe in a few years I can return to the Giro, but now I want to do the best I can in the Tour.”
De Gendt holds no illusions about this year’s Tour, a race he’s only started once, finishing 62nd in 2011.
“The Tour is something quite different from the Giro,” he said. “The podium? No, that is impossible, but maybe the top-10 is something to aim for. It’s a good course for me.”
De Gendt is confident that his career path is on an upward trajectory and he wants to confirm his Giro breakout with a strong Tour performance this year.
The compact, 5-foot-9 Belgian can climb as well as time trial. That double threat put the scare into the Giro podium contenders last year when he disappeared over the Mortirolo.
After years of Belgian riders aiming exclusively at the classics, De Gendt is part of a new generation taking on the GC in grand tours that also includes Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol).
His 2011 Tour debut caught the attention of many, especially his strong ride in the final week, when he rode to sixth up Alpe d’Huez in stage 19 and then to fourth in the next day’s time trial.
Last year, De Gendt raced the Giro for a simple reason: he was getting married during the Tour. Personal priorities took priorities last year, something that he hopes only happens once in his racing career.
“You cannot get married the second time. Well, you can but I hope it’s only once” he said with a laugh. “Last year, going to the Giro was a bit of a change, but I wanted to make the most of it.”
Making the most of it, he did. He was floating in the top-10 through the opening two weeks and no one was paying much attention to him going into the decisive final weekend.
Then he sprang a trap, attacking on the epic stage over the Mortirolo and finishing atop the Stelvio. De Gendt attacked with more than 60 kilometers to go and rode alone through a breakaway and then dropped a few stragglers trying to hold his wheel up the brutally steep Stelvio.
Eventual winner Hesjedal was fighting a battle on two fronts because he couldn’t let the strong time trialist De Gendt get too much rope, yet he couldn’t risk burning too many matches in the chase because arch-rival Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was sucking his wheel.
Hesjedal bounced ahead of Rodríguez to win the Giro while De Gendt snuck past Michele Scarponi (Lampre) to earn a podium spot in third.
“It will always be a magical memory for me. I hope to get back to a stage win like that again in the grand tours,” De Gendt said. “Maybe it is the biggest victory I will ever have. I have it now and it will be on my palmares forever. I am proud of that.”
De Gendt said it was a matter of the pieces coming together that day. While the top GC riders were trading blows over three weeks, De Gendt was patiently biding his time and conserving his energy. He was staying close on the climbs without calling too much attention to himself.
De Gendt was no stranger to the Stelvio, having ridden it dozens of times from his nearby training base in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
“It was one of the best ever days of my career,” De Gendt continued. “It really hurt then, but you do not remember that now. You have to try and you never know. It worked out for and I will try again and one day it will work again.”
De Gendt debuted his 2013 season at the Tour Down Under and then raced the Volta ao Algarve. His first major goal is Paris-Nice, with a string of stage races including the Volta a Catalunya, the Vuelta al País Vasco, and the Tour de Romandie.
“I hope to do well in Paris-Nice,” he said. “I have won a stage there two years in a row. I would like to do well in the GC as well.”
The Giro success changed De Gendt’s priorities as well. No longer content to hunt stages, he wants to round out his skill set to take aim for the overall in every stage race he starts.
“That Giro changed not only the mindset for me but also the team. We are now looking at the stage races, and not just for stage wins, but for a strong GC,” he said. “We will try to get as high as possible in the Tour.”
De Gendt is sure to be a marked man, however. After watching what happened over the Mortirolo last year, no one will want to give him too much of a head start again.