AJACCIO, France (VN) — It took him a few years, but Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Leopard) delivered his first pro win on cycling’s biggest stage in the baddest way possible.
With the hounds on his heels, the 27-year-old Belgian attacked out of a late-stage, six-man group to hold off the fast-charging pack by the narrowest of margins and claim a double dose of glory in stage 2 of the 2013 Tour de France — his first Tour de France.
“I looked back and I still had 100 meters on the pack,” Bakelants said. “I couldn’t believe it; the yellow jersey and the stage. I am a happy man.”
The Belgian has been knocking on the door of a win since turning pro in 2009. A winner of the 2008 Tour de l’Avenir, Bakelants has notched a string of top-10s, but could never finish off the deal.
Crashes, injuries, and bad luck all stymied him during two seasons with Quick Step (2010-11). Since joining RadioShack in 2012, he’s taken one step forward, two steps back.
In 2010, he crashed heavily in the rain at the Giro di Lombardia, cracking his knee and breaking an elbow. This spring, he underwent knee surgery, but came back strong to finish third at the Tour of Luxembourg and third at the Belgian national road championships.
Teammate Stijn Devolder won the Belgian title, but pulled his younger teammate aside and said, “Don’t worry, you will win a stage at the Tour.
“Jan deserves this victory,” said RadioShack sport director Alain Gallopin. “He has had some bad luck and some injuries, but we didn’t stop believing in him. We always knew he could do something like this.”
After four winless pro seasons, the stars finally lined up for Bakelants, who couldn’t quite believe his fortune on Sunday.
After the peloton ripped over a short, steep third-category climb with 15km to go in Sunday’s second stage across the heart of Corsica, Bakelants sniffed out the winning move, following Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DMC) and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) when they surged clear of the reduced bunch.
A total of six riders linked up to wedge a small, yet promising 10-second gap on the chasing bunch with 5km to go.
Garmin-Sharp’s David Millar, who was fourth in Saturday’s opener into Bastia, was poised to take yellow if it came down to a bunch sprint. And with Peter Sagan (Cannondale) sitting in the front group that didn’t include the top sprinters, the breakaway seemed doomed.
But a funny thing happened. The main pack hesitated for a moment, and Bakelants could smell the finish line. With sport director Kim Andersen yelling, “Go! go! go!” into his earpiece, Bakelants poured it on.
One final shoulder-check confirmed his gap.
“Every time I would pull through, I felt like I was the strongest in the group,” he said. “When the group was getting closer, I said, ‘What do we do? Sit up and watch Sagan win another stage?’
“When I came through with a final pull, I had a 10-meter gap. Chavanel tried to come with me, but he had a bad moment. I just kept going toward the line.”
Bakelants made a big splash by winning the 2008 Tour de l’Avenir, which instantly gave him media attention in cycling-crazed Belgium. Despite the frustration of not winning, Bakelants never stopped believing.
“I was always having something wrong; bad luck, injuries,” he said. “Today, I had good luck, I attacked at the right moment, and I had good legs. I worked hard to come back. It’s a special feeling to finally win and to have it during the Tour.”
He’s not your typical pro. Teammate Maxime Monfort called him an “intellectual, and said he thinks about “more than cars and girls,” something Bakelants was quick to qualify.
“I like cars and girls, too, but there is more to life than being a cyclist,” he said.
Bakelants is rare in that he owns a college degree, in engineering, and likes to read books.
Still, he said, “Bike racing is the first priority.”
Bakelants realizes his one-second gap to Millar and the top GC contenders might make his spell in yellow a short one, but he couldn’t care less.
“This might be the first and last day in the yellow jersey, but it’s phenomenal,” he said. “I am a very happy man.”