Just when it looked like Jan Bakelants might never live up to the potential he showed in his younger days, the Belgian came good at long last in Sunday’s second stage of the Tour de France, as the controversy that marred Saturday’s opener took a back seat.
There were no mass crashes or farcical incidents involving buses on the 156km ride across Corsica from Bastia to the island’s largest city, Ajaccio, the birthplace of former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
A rumored protest by the peloton amid safety concerns on the back of Saturday’s mess amounted to nothing either.
Instead, there was plenty of to-ing and fro-ing on the collection of tricky climbs across the island’s interior before Bakelants broke away from a small group of fellow escapees and made for the line, coming home a second clear of a mass pack who tried frantically to play catch-up.
So unheralded was Bakelants that French television commentators were completely caught out, confidently declaring that Spaniard Markel Irizar had crossed the line first.
However, this was to be Bakelants’ day, with the RadioShack-Leopard team rider finally recording a major stage victory at the age of 27.
This is his debut Tour de France, but bigger things might have come sooner for someone who won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2008, had “bad luck,” as he puts it, not got in the way.
“I’ve had a lot of bad luck,” said Bakelants, who hails from the town of Oudenaarde, a cycling-mad town in a cycling-mad nation that is home to the museum of the Tour of Flanders.
“I fell in 2010 in the Tour of Lombardy and fractured my right knee and left elbow. Things like that need time for you to recover and come back. I remember at L’Aquila in the Giro d’Italia when I fell on the last curve too. I had my opportunities but something was missing, just a bit of luck,” Bakelants said.
“Today, I had a bit of everything. I attacked at a good time and my legs went well, and finally it has happened,” he said.
And yet Bakelants, who graduated in bioengineering at Leuven University before turning professional at the age of 23, so nearly did not get the chance.
“This year started in a very difficult way for me too. I had an operation on my right knee, then I came back again in the Tour of Romandie, but had another injury in my other knee, so after that I worked very hard to come back and be the old Jan Bakelants that was capable of winning, “ he said.
He is unlikely to hold on to the overall race leader’s yellow jersey for long, though. Indeed, he and the rest of his teammates are focused primarily on Andy Schleck’s general classification bid.
The fragile Luxemburger has lost the edge that allowed him to grapple with Alberto Contador for Tour glory in 2010, but Bakelants hopes his stage win can help Schleck come back out of his shell.
“I saw a strong Andy today,” he said. “I think Andy is in really good shape and also my victory will give him more belief in what he can achieve. I am starting to believe Andy can come really far.”
It was a decent day for those being touted as likely overall Tour winners, with pre-race favorite Chris Froome displaying his intent with an energetic attack on the final climb of the stage near the finish in Ajaccio.
Froome later declared it was mission accomplished, saying: “The main objective for us was to stay out of trouble today, stay at the front, and not lose any time to the main contenders.”
Meanwhile, Cadel Evans rode solidly and also came in a second behind Bakelants, while Contador proved that he is over the shoulder injury suffered in a fall on Saturday.
“The first few days are always tough, especially after a fall,” the Spaniard said. “I felt a bit uncomfortable at the start of the day, but improved as it went on. The serious stuff has not started yet.”