Pello Bilbao and his Bahrain Victorious team impressed yet again on stage 2 of the Tour of the Alps, the Basque rider winning the stage in Lana and his orange-clad teammates doing the hard work to close down a dangerous attack by Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers) and Michael Storer (Groupama-FDJ).
Sivakov was on a mission to test his own form and that of his rivals after the break formed on the Passo Rolle as the Tour of the Alps climbed towards the Dolomites and then onto the Passo della Mendola above Bolzano.
Only 16 riders finished in the front group, such was the intensity of the pursuit of Sivakov and Storer and the climbing in the 154km stage but four of them were from Bahrain Victorious: Pello Bilbao, Mikel Landa, Santiago Buitrago and Hermann Pernsteiner.
In contrast, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Qazaqstan) was dropped from the break and the chase group, finishing in a group at 13:52, while stage 1 winner Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroën) and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) lost contact on the last climb and 35 precious seconds. The rest of the peloton was spread over 20 minutes.
Bilbao was able to sit behind his teammates as they pursued Sivakov and Storer and they also gave him a superb lead-out in the rising and twisting final kilometre. The fast finishing Basque rider had little problem in beating Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and Valter Attila (Groupama-FDJ). Thanks to time bonuses, Bilbao leads the Frenchman in the overall classification by six seconds.
“We were patient and confident in our ability. It was difficult to believe we would catch them at one point but we just kept riding and everyone in the team gave their best,” Bilbao explained with pride.
“It was impressive to see four Bahrain Victorious riders reach the finish together and still have legs to give me a great lead-out. After that I couldn’t miss out on such a chance of victory.
“I’m super proud of this victory. I love it when we show that cycling is a real team sport. It’s impossible to win here without a team. I needed all the riders today.”
Bilbao is quiet spoken but seems to know how to inspire loyalty amongst his teammates. He does not shout or complain, or openly criticise them when they make mistakes. He is always ready to play a domestique role when needed.
“I don’t like to rush in and take leadership and responsibility in a team, I prefer to show what I can do out on the road, that’s how you ensure all your teammates are then ready to help you,” he explained.
“The team helped me win a stage at the Itzula Basque Country and it’s been a great start to the season. But I know there will be a moment when I work for the others and that’s not a problem. We’re alway ready to work 100 per cent for our leader, whoever that may be.
“As a team we took up the chase today. The others left it up to us but the way to win today was to work hard. In certain races, when you feel strong, you’ve got to take on the responsibility for the race and we got it right this time.”
Bilbao is now 32 but arguably at his best. He beat Julian Alaphilippe in a sprint to win on home roads in the Basque Country. He was also third on the Jebel Hafeet mountain stage at the UAE Tour, finishing just five seconds down on overall winner Tadej Pogačar.
He finished ninth overall at the 2021 Tour de France and was fifth overall at the 2020 Giro d’Italia. But has also seen his Grand Tour ambitions crumble in the final week. He will target the 2022 Giro d’Italia alongside Landa but is cautious about any dreams of pulling on the maglia rosa in May.
“I think I’m at my best ever. I’m still improving year on year and this is probably the best moment of my career,” he said.
“The maglia rosa at the Giro is a dream but it still has to come true. Grand Tours are sometimes difficult for me. I don’t think I’m strong enough in the time trials and the mountains. I’m consistent and that helps me, but to lead the race, to take the maglia rosa is hard. But I don’t think it’s impossible.”
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