Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel has vanquished all of his early season mishaps by winning stage two of this year's Tour de France to Spa and taking the yellow jersey of race leader with his solo victory.
Two months ago, the Quick Step leader got knocked over by a motorbike in the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and had to wear a neckbrace because of a skull fracture. Today, Chavanel returned on these same roads to achieve a perfect comeback.
"This is very emotional," he said at the finish. "I'm unbelievably happy. I'm very proud of what I've done. I'm thinking of my wife and my two kids. It's the greatest day of my career - not the greatest day of my life as that would be when my children were born." As he celebrated his victory, the 31-year-old had kissed the golden pendant he wears around his neck, bearing the names of his sons Baptiste and Maxence.
"Before I left, I said that if I won a stage I would kiss it, so now it's done. I think my kids, my wife, my parents and all of my family cried today..."
Chavanel himself could not believe his feat at the finish and had a hard time holding back his tears after riding a total of 180 kilometres in front. The Frenchman was part of the early stage breakaway including his teammate and good friend Jérôme Pineau, who scored the polka-dot jersey of best climber in the escape before falling back.
Chavanel pressed on, and overtook his earlier breakaway companion Jürgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) after the descent of the Aissomont climb with 39 kilometres to go.
"It was a difficult stage, a stage that I had marked on my calendar. With Jérôme, it was the plan to attack. But I don't have the sprint speed that he has, so we decided that he should go for the mountains jersey and then we'd see what happens. I had great legs, and it was a magnificent day for us."
The now two-time Tour stage winner had less than one minute over the bunch when the mass crash occurred on the descent of the Stockeu climb with 33 kilometres to the line. "In the descent of the Stockeu, I took some risks and I heard Jérôme cry out in the earpiece that there were crashes behind. Of course, that was bad for the bunch but for me it was an advantage.
"I gave it everything. And the fact that the riders decided to neutralize the rest of the stage doesn't take anything away from my victory. For sure, in stages like that, it's always better to be in front than back in the bunch. The roads are narrow, with the rain today they were slippery."
Chavanel, who never minded the rain, continued on towards the thermal town of Spa, where he scored not only the stage but also the yellow jersey which he has never worn in his career. "I hope to keep the jersey as long as possible," he said. "I have a
reasonable lead. I hope to keep it at least to [first mountain top finish] Les Rousses."
Thinking back to the difficulties he experienced earlier this season, the victory today was even sweeter. "It just goes to show that you should never give up. I had a really hard time recovering from my injury two months ago, and even before that I only had some top 20 placings in the Spring Classics even though I was always in the right group. And then, when I think of all these hours of training in front of the TV, watching the Giro... I can put all of that behind me now."
Chavanel didn't particularly understand certain riders' criticism of the stage route over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix tomorrow. "Well, if they want to neutralize that stage and not race it, then they should just do it. It will only be to my advantage! Honestly, I don't understand it. I think the rider that wins the Tour de France should be the most complete rider, at ease on the cobbles, in the mountains, in the time trials. It's all part of it."