Grand Tours are a roller coaster of emotion, and the tale of Aqua Blue Sport's second and third weeks of the Vuelta a Espana could hardly be any more different. Six days after the team woke up to the news that their bus had burned down following an arson attack, Stefan Denifl rode to the team's and his first-ever Grand Tour victory.
It is Aqua Blue Sport's inaugural season and their debut appearance at a three-week race after earning a wild card from the organisers. They have been ever present in the breakaways in the opening weeks of the race and Denifl said that some quick work from the staff and the race organisers meant that the riders didn't miss a pedal stroke after the arson attack last week.
"On the second rest day, two days ago, I knew that I was still feeling good and I was confident. It has been an amazing year for our team, Aqua Blue Sport. We're in our first year in pro cycling and we're winning a stage at the Vuelta, it's perfect," a delighted Denifl said.
"It was not easy for sure when your team bus burns down but, for us riders, the team did an amazing job and also the Vuelta. In the first two days we had a bus from the Vuelta organisation, and then we got a rented bus from the Portuguese team that our team organised. For us riders, we didn't have any disadvantages, but it was sad for sure to see our bus burning down. In the end, now we get a new one for next season."
Denifl was part of a six-man group that got away after close to 20 kilometres of racing. It included former Vuelta a Espana stage winners Alessandro de Marchi, Daniel Moreno and Magnus Cort Nielson, as well as mountains classification leader Davide Villella and stage 8 victor Julian Alaphilippe.
The group was allowed over nine minutes of an advantage before the Astana team took over the pace setting. By the time they reached the climb it was just over a minute and still tumbling. Denifl even had sight of Alberto Contador attacking in the closing kilometres and he thought he might have to rely on a gift from the Spaniard to take home the win. Fortunately, it didn't come to that.
"It was a hard day in the end. Teams were chasing us, so it was not that they said just go and you can take the stage win. They made us work really hard," explained Denifl. "On the second to last climb, I felt really good. Then with two kilometres to go, I saw Alberto Contador behind, and I thought that he was going to catch me and maybe he might give me a present on his last Vuelta. In the end, I was happy that I didn't need it and I could take the stage win alone.
"It was amazing. In the last kilometre there were so many people, and now I know how this feeling is when those guys win a big stage in the mountains. It has been amazing."
The Vuelta a Espana stage win caps off what has been a whirlwind second half of the season for the 29-year-old. In July, he secured the team's first general classification win at his native Tour of Austria. He returned home for the birth of his first child, but it wasn't long before he had to head off again to prepare for the Vuelta a Espana.
"It's super special. It was a great year. I won the Tour of Austria and then two weeks later my first kid was born, a boy, and then I had to leave him at home to come here for the Vuelta," said Denifl. "It was pretty hard to come here, but I knew that it would be a big thing for the team and that I would get my chances here. Now I have won a stage and then I only have four more days before I can go home for the off-season."