Jan Bakelants is back at the Giro d'Italia one year after making his debut in a Grand Tour. The 24-year-old from Oudenaarde is tipped as Belgium's next big thing for the big stage races since he won the 2008 Tour de l'Avenir and also the U23 version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège that same year.
The strong performance of his Omega Pharma-Lotto squad in the opening team time trial in Turin (4th) and his fifteenth place on stage 3 in Rapallo earned him the right to wear the white jersey of best young rider for two days, which is what he needed to boost his confidence after the crash that put a sad conclusion to his first season at the ProTour level last year.
The day of the triumph of his teammate Philippe Gilbert in the Giro di Lombardia, Bakelants crashed heavily and sustained a triple fracture of a wrist, a broken elbow and a broken left kneecap.
"This was a serious crash," Bakelants told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 5 in Piombino. His preparation for the 2011 season was evidently affected but the Giro is putting him back on track and he looked focused and motivated despite the terrible news of the death of his compatriot Wouter Weylandt.
"I've enjoyed wearing this white jersey," he said. "But this is not really a goal. I'm not here for riding GC." In fact, he lost the leadership of the young rider classification to Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk as he arrived in Orvieto 3:03 behind stage winner Pieter Weening.
"The end of the Giro is very hard and it would be presumptuous for me to target GC," Bakelants said. "I'd prefer to win a stage."
Bakelants was actually very close to winning a stage - and not a small one - one year ago when he made the legendary 56-man breakaway en route to L'Aquila on stage 11. He broke away solo at the entrance of the finishing town but slipped in the last downhill and broke his derailleur. After crossing the finishing line in tenth position, he was so shocked, disillusioned and exhausted at the end of a Dante-esque day of racing that he wasn't able to say a word.
"The stage is still in my memory and I'll remember it for a long time I think," Bakelants said. "I actually want to do the same but without crashing. A stage win at the Giro this year would be nice. I tried the day that Wouter crashed. I attacked in the final climb but I was brought back and the following attack after mine was the decisive one. That's racing."
After finishing 18th at last year's Vuelta a España, the Belgian has another opportunity to test himself in the big mountains. "I'm a good climber," he said. "I'm not at the level of [Roman] Kreuziger but I can do well."