On a Critérium du Dauphiné start list crowded by Tour de France hopefuls, it was intriguing to see the name of Pello Bilbao, the Spaniard having just come out of the Giro d'Italia, and having finished sixth overall, to boot. While the Tour contenders are still building their form, with the Grand Dêpart still four weeks away, Bilbao is hanging onto the coattails of his, and was rewarded with a solo stage win from the breakaway at La Rosière on Saturday.
For the 28-year-old, it was the latest exploit in a rich vein of results, leading him to assert newfound status in his second season with Astana.
Bilbao started his career at Euskaltel-Euskadi and dropped down to Pro Continental level with Caja Rural when the Basque team folded, before moving back to the WorldTour with Astana at the start of 2017.
After finishing 23rd at the Vuelta a España last year, he has really stepped up this year, with top 10 finishes at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the Vuelta al País Vasco. He then won a stage of the Tour of the Alps and went on to finish sixth overall at the Giro, all while nominally working for the likes of Miguel Angel Lopez.
"All these results were out of my mind, at least at the start of the season, my objective was to stay on a good level, at around 90 per cent of my form, all the first part of the season, because in the end I work for the team – my objective is not to win,” Bilbao said in his post-stage press conference in La Rosière.
"The team didn't tell me I had to win, but I wanted to be there always regular, up with our leaders. This year, also the team in some moments believed in me, like in the Tour of the Alps, where I was able to make a good result in a stage. Then in the Giro I took morale with sixth place in the [stage 1] time trial and, without thinking it, I could finish in top 10. The team believed in me and gave me a possibility to stay there.
"It all goes little-by-little. Last year, I arrived at Astana and was just there to support, but at the end of the season I could demonstrate good legs at the Vuelta. I am progressing, always asking the team what they need from me, and maybe this year I earned some status in the team, and at some moments they gave me more responsibility. These are the days you have to demonstrate to the team that all the confidence they put in you wasn’t misplaced.”
Bilbao predicted that on Sunday's final stage "I am going to pay", but he has only one more day to get through before he can finally put his feet up.
"Hopefully I'm not going to the Tour de France," he joked when asked about his forthcoming plans.
"It's time to go on holiday, because this first part of the season has been so intense. The objective in the second part of the season is going to be the Vuelta. Let's see how I'm going to arrive there and what the objectives are, but for now I'm only thinking about having a rest."
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