Jan Bakelants' first victory as a full-fledged pro has been a long time coming. Lauded as Belgium's next stage racing prospect when he won the Tour de l'Avenir in 2008, the 27-year-old has subsequently been dogged by ill fortune. However, after receiving last-minute confirmation he would be riding the Tour de France when he finished third in the Belgian national championship 10 days ago, Bakelants finally took his first pro win on just his second day in the race, and claimed the significant bonus of the yellow jersey as well.
It was no wonder that the clearly overwhelmed Belgian described today as "definitely the most beautiful day in my life as a cyclist. After all of the problems I've had in past seasons and also this season, it's fantastic. It's so incredible to give something back to the team after all of the misery I've had this year and in previous seasons."
Bakelants revealed that he had not planned to go clear in the final moments of the stage. He admitted that when he made the surge that took him clear of his five breakaway companions, his goal had been to increase the break's momentum as the bunch bore down on them.
"The six of us were all strong riders, but I had the feeling not all of us were going 100 per cent. I think some of the others were holding something back for the final sprint. I knew if everyone went 100 per cent to the finish, it would be possible," said the Belgian.
"I felt so easy in the break. Every time I went to the front, I felt like I was stronger than the others. I was saying to myself: 'Are we going to ride or are we going to let the bunch catch us and see another Sagan win?' I could see the bunch coming and I've been in there a lot and know it's not often you see a rider holding the bunch off on his own. I know how fast the bunch can go."
Bakelants went to the front as the road rose slightly and quickly realised his effort had carried him 10 metres clear. "The others hesitated. Sylvain Chavanel had a moment of doubt, and it was too late for him to bridge up to me. I glanced back and I could see I had a gap. [RadioShack DS] Kim Andersen kept shouting in my ear, 'Go! Go! Go!' I just spun my 11 and went as fast as I could.
"I looked back and I was telling myself, 'It's possible! It's possible! Give everything you have.' When I saw the sign for 500 metres, and I realised I still had a gap of 100 metres, I knew it was going to happen, and I knew I would also take the yellow jersey. Maybe it will be for the first and last time in my career, but today I am wearing it. I'm overwhelmed."
Engulfed in a bear-hug by RadioShack DS Alain Gallopin when in the middle of his media interviews, Bakelants went on to detail the string of disappointments he has had. "In 2010, I crashed at the Tour of Lombardy and fractured my right knee and my left elbow. Injuries like that take a long time to heal. That year in the Giro stage to L'Aquila, I was in the break but crashed on the final bend. I crashed when in the break on the 2011 Vuelta stage to Ponferrada. So I had my opportunities, but I was just missing, not so much condition, but a bit of luck. But I had it today together with good legs," he said.
His problems continued earlier this year when he underwent another operation on his right knee. "I returned at the Tour of Romandy, where I got inflammation on the other side of that knee. They pulled me out of the Dauphiné, and I was angry about that, but they said that I couldn't deny another a rider a spot there, that I wasn't ready for it."
"But Alain [Gallopin] said they would look at how things were after the Tour of Luxembourg with regard to the Tour de France. I did a super GP Gippigen, then a super Luxembourg with Bob [Jungels]. Then I had a good day at the Belgian championship and Alain told me, 'OK Jan, I'm going to take you to the Tour. I think you can win a stage.' But I never thought I could win like this so early in the Tour."
Asked about teammate Maxime Monfort's comment that he's one of the peloton's intellectuals, a rider who doesn't always talk about cars and girls, Bakelants laughed and said, "Thanks Maxime, although I have to admit I do like cars and girls. But before I turned pro at the age of 23, I was a student at the University of Leuven and got a degree in bioengineering science. I do think there's more to life than just cycling. But at the moment cycling does have first place."
Bakelants said he felt his success could help RadioShack team leader Andy Schleck with regard to the team's longer-term goals in the race. "I could see a strong Andy today. When we were on the long climb Andy was with me, and I think he's in really good shape. I think my victory will give him more belief in what he can achieve."
"In addition, the pressure on the team has been lifted. We have something in the bag, and I'm starting to believe Andy can go a really long way. I think this victory is also good for him as the pressure that would otherwise fall on him has been lifted."