Pierre Rolland and the Cannondale-Drapac team celebrated their first Grand Tour stage victory in two years at the Giro d'Italia on Wednesday, with all the riders smiling and celebrating as they crossed the stage 17 finish line in Canazei.
Rolland is the elder statesman at Cannondale-Drapac. He comes from the traditional school of French cycling but has fit in well at the US-registered team. Like any many of the riders in the green argyle colours, he is a unique character, a maverick but also a talented rider who loves what he does and fights the daily pain of Grand Tours in the hope of a stage victory like this one.
"This was totally worth two weeks of suffering," Cannondale-Drapac's Michael Woods said after finishing ninth in the rest of the attack of the day that was unable to chase down Rolland in the finale. Woods played a key role in the breakaway, blocking the chase in the final kilometres, ready to fight for victory in the sprint if needed.
"This was the most special moment that I had on a bike, seeing Pierre ride away like that, that was amazing. We've been racing like we want to win, like champions. I think today we proved that."
Rolland was happy too. He has won two stages at the Tour de France, including one at L'Alpe d'Huez in 2011, but this was his first win since leaving Team Europcar to join Cannondale in 2016. He was almost in tears after the finish after also ending his own two-year drought.
"It wasn't really the day for me but I went for it," he explained later in the press conference.
"In the morning briefing before the stage, our directeur sportif Fabrizio Guidi asked what I wanted to do. I said if there's a chance, I'd go for even if it wrecked my chances for tomorrow. I just told myself I'd go up the road because everyone was tired after the Stelvio stage. I know because it was one of hardest stages in my career."
Rolland attacked from kilometre zero with Pavel Brutt and Matej Mohoric. He wisely dropped back to the large chase group that came up from the peloton and only began attacking in the finale on the gradual climb up the Fassa valley towards the Dolomites. Timing a solo move perfectly with eight kilometres to go, Rolland got away and Woods helped shut down the chasing, allowing his teammate to open a decisive 30-second gap.
Rolland naturally took time to savour his solo victory
"I prefer to race hard, as if there's no tomorrow. Maybe I get 10th or second but that's OK. If there's a chance to go on the attack, I don't think about it, I go. That's the way I see cycling. These days everybody waits and waits, to save energy and stuff but if you wait too long it's game over. It worked out for me today and so I'm so, so happy."
Rolland revealed on Twitter that he awoke at five in the morning before Tuesday's Queen stage over the Stelvio, such was his excitement. He lives for the emotions of the big races.
"I race to ride stages like that, on the Stelvio in the 100th Giro d'Italia. I love the history of my sport and the big stages," he said.
"Yesterday wasn't a good stage for me, I suffered a lot and thought my form I had from start was fading. But after a good night sleep, my body responded and after I had a great day today."
Happy to give up the GC and target stage victories
Rolland has often targeted the overall classification in the Tour de France, finishing 10th in 2011 and eighth in 2012. He was also fourth overall in the 2014 Giro d'Italia. However, he revealed defensive racing is against his natural aggression and stops him enjoying his racing.
"I was often forced to ride for the classification but I never enjoyed it," he said.
"The GC is hard all the time and it's stressful, you can't crash, you can't puncture, you can't switch off. After riding for the GC I'm dead for two or three months. It's difficult for me to stay in the peloton and wait for the selection, I don't enjoy it, I prefer to attack. This sport is so hard that if you can't enjoy it, it does your head in.
"In the winter I went to Colorado and talked with Jonathan Vaughters, who is my manager and now my coach. We talked a lot of about a new chapter in my career, we decided to go for stage wins on both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France and now I've won one."
A role model more than a road captain
Rolland is one of the oldest and most experienced riders at Cannondale. His palmares and his ability to suffer during the 2016 Tour de France have made him a natural role model even if he plays down his natural leadership role.
"I'm not a road captain but I try to be a positive role model for them," Rolland said of young teammates such as Joe Dombrowski and Hugh Carthy, who are very much like the Frenchman.
"I think they respect me because I ride at the front and also because I kept attack at the Tour de France despite crashing. The whole team appreciates that. I've found a role for me in this team and I hope I can inspire them and been an example for the other guys."
Michael Woods agreed at the finish in Canazei.
"Pierre is the legend, the greatest guy, it's just so special to have a win. It's awesome," he said, convinced that other riders on the team could now win.
"We've got a lot of talent and heart in this team, guys that are riding aggressively. The way we are riding right now, we are going to keep on winning. This is just the start.
"We were feeling that pressure (of not winning) but the crew we have here, it was going to happen. We kept on saying that and now we have it."
Davide Formolo is defending the Cannondale-Drapac overall hopes. He was the team's last Grand tour stage winner in 2015 and is currently 13th overall and third in the best young rider competition after finishing an impressive sixth in Bormio.
"It's great to see Pierre win at the Giro d'Italia two years after my win," he told Cyclingnews.
"We had two second places with Moreno Moser last year, we had two second places at the Vuelta. We were always there but we just missed out. Today we hit the jackpot."