A domestique during his two seasons in the WorldTour with IAM Cycling, Simon Pellaud's supporting role for his teammates has continued in 2017 with Team Illuminate. But on stage 2 of the Tour of Rwanda, Pellaud showcased his winning instinct with a breakthrough stage victory.
Pacing himself on the six categorised climbs across the 180-kilometre stage, the highest topping out at 2,446 metres, the 25-year-old powered down the descents to stay with a reduced peloton still in contention for the win. On the final and hardest climb of the day, Pellaud left his companions behind and rode the remaining 30 kilometres of the stage solo to arrive in Rubavu and claim the race lead.
"It is my first UCI win and I was so close so many times and now I am just enjoying it," Pellaud told Cyclingnews prior to the podium celebrations. "I will wear the yellow jersey tomorrow and that is crazy. I am super happy. With the win, our team wins in four continents and I couldn't be happier to be part of that. I had my chance and I took it."
While some riders baulked at the rain and the added difficulty of the descent into the city on the banks of Lake Kivu, Pellaud showed no signs of hesitation knowing the reward that was waiting for him at the finish line. When he arrived in Rubavu, he ran through a full selection of winning salutes, with no sign of being overcome by the occasion.
"People were laughing a little when I went on the longest climb but I knew that if I could take one minute in the last five kilometres of the climb then ride full downhill and start the final 10-kilometre climb with 1:10 advantage at the bottom, maybe I could stay with the guys or come back in the last 30 kilometres in the downhill. And it is what I did," he said. "Then the rain came and it changed things a little bit. I was able to more or less stay with the guys and I got dropped every climb but I came back. It was amazing. Then I did 30 kilometres solo and I tried to enjoy my win."
With the Rwandan national team lighting up the race in the finale for its 2015 champion Jean Bosco Nsengimana, and yellow jersey leader Joseph Areruya (Dimension Data for Qhubeka) slugging it out on the climbs, Pellaud remained calm despite limited communication with the team car.
"They weren't bringing it back. You could tell he was increasing as he got closer to the finish. The descents got a little more technical and at that point, we knew Simon was gone," team manager Chris Johnson explained the situation. "I did not really have a way to communicate with him even when I got up to the commissaires, he was not letting us talk to him or anything. We were pounding the car and encouraging him. I don't think he even knew he had won the stage until he hit the chute and looked back and I gave him the thumbs up."
Pellaud explained to Cyclingnews that he has revelled in the success of his Illuminate teammates this season, helping them to wins in Taiwan, Azerbaijan, Romania and Colombia. But fulfilling his desire for personal success at the end of a long year is the cherry on the cake.
"I worked all season long for Edwin [Avila] and every time I was enjoying his win from the back, when I came over the line with the win it was 'yeah, Edwin won' or even when I was his last man in the lead out for the sprint," he said of the Colombian, who is departing for Israel Cycling Academy. "This time I could enjoy it myself and it is such a great feeling. I am not the fastest guy and I am not the best climber but I am always aggressive and that is my way to ride. When it goes, it goes like that and it is amazing."
Soaking in his first visit to the podium as a winner at the UCI level, Pellaud also enjoyed the occasion backstage with his teammates and Johnson. Rather than see it as the beginning of a week in which he graces the podium in yellow, Pellaud was quick to announce he has no intentions for the overall.
"No, I am not thinking about the overall at all," he said. "I got dropped every single climb today so I will enjoy my day in yellow tomorrow. Just 90 kilometres tomorrow with a big mountain to climb up but I am sure tomorrow night it will be back on the shoulders of a Rwandan. Don't worry about me being there in yellow on Sunday. I am here to win a stage and I did it."