In Africa Steve Cummings is a hero after winning a stage at the Tour de France on Mandela Day. In France he is perhaps seen as a villain after beating Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale). For the MTN-Qhubeka team it was a historic day, taking their first ever Tour victory. For Cummings it is a day of celebration and redemption after years of injuries, doubts and misunderstandings with his teams and himself.
Cummings was one of the most talented riders in the Great Britain track team in his early 20s. He had the power to produce super fast laps on the track but lacked consistency. He preferred to focus on road racing rather than suffer in a rigid track programme. He has won a handful of races in the past, including a stage at the 2012 Vuelta but finally showed his talent on a global stage in Mende.
After hiding in the break that shaped the stage, Cummings seemed to come from nowhere to catch and pass Pinot and Bardet. In truth, he produced a controlled effort, only giving it all and going deep in the final part of the steep climb to Mende after team manager Brian Smith told him to attack after he saw that the two French riders had eased up. Cummings used his innate power and aero position to do the rest, surging up to Pinot and Bardet and then going past them and driving to the finish.
“It’s the Tour and everyone wants a chance. I took my opportunity,” Cummings said after celebrating on the podium on the airstrip above Mende.
“I gambled. You have to be prepared to lose if you want to win. I did it tactically very well. There were three riders from FDJ and they made it clear they’d go for Pinot. I didn’t have to pull much as I was not the best climber.
"I rode the climb in 2010 during Paris-Nice. I knew it was really hard and I wasn’t the best climber. I wasn’t thinking about victory, just about the climb. I arrived at top of the climb at my limit, it was about not blowing up halfway.
“I waited for the right moment and then I time trialed it when there was one kilometer to go, I went full gas. When the road tipped and went down, the race sort of changed, it was in my favour. I had more kilos, I was more aero than the other two, even if they didn’t cooperate. I caught them and went right to the front ready for the corners. I knew Pinot would be cautious and that he wouldn’t corner as fast as I could. It wasn’t really a risk. I saw that he wasn’t on the wheel and went for it, using my track speed for the final 400 metres. It’s hard for a climber to stay on the wheel of a track rider.”
Joining MTN-Qhubeka for opportunities
Cummings has ridden eight Grand Tours, making his debut in the Giro d’Italia with Barloworld back in 2007. He revealed he has special affection for cycling’s Grand Slam events and the mystique of stage-long breakaways.
“When you grow up the Tour is a dream and so to be here is a dream. To win a stage in the Vuelta makes you ask, ‘Why can’t I do it in the Tour?’ But it’s not easy,” Cummings explained, occasionally becoming emotional as he spoke, realizing just what he had finally achieved.
“You need a team to have an opportunity. This team has been super to give me a free role and leave it to me. It perhaps looks bad when I’m at the back (of the peloton) but credit to them and to me.
“To deliver on Mandela Day is brilliant. We had a special meeting, we had a special orange helmet for Mandela day, and it was a big motivation. I didn’t really think we could win. It was a long shot. Luckily I played it well, all the team helped me at the start as best they could. There was a crash; it was chaotic, as these stages are at the Tour. But it all went good.”
Cummings has spent the recent years of his career in the service of big-name team leaders at Team Sky and BMC. He opted to join MTN-Qhubeka this season to finally enjoy some freedom and have a chance to play his own cards. He stepped down from WorldTour level but it has proved to be the right move.
“I was just attracted to the team because of Qhubeka, it’s a good cause and what they do is unique in cycling. I like that side of our sport. They’re not like other teams and I knew I’d get changes here and was ready to make the most of it. I’m also happy to help riders like Edvald Boasson Hagen and Louis Meintjes on their day.”