COVID-19 vaccine issue and triceps training help set Herregodts to Ruta success

IZNAJAR SPAIN FEBRUARY 16 Rune Herregodts of Belgium and Team Sport Vlaanderen Baloise celebrates winning during the 68th Vuelta A Andalucia Ruta Del Sol 2022 Stage 1 a 2007km at stage from Ubrique to Iznjar 514m 68RdS on February 16 2022 in Iznjar Spain Photo by Bas CzerwinskiGetty Images
Rune Herregodts (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) celebrates his stage win in Ruta del Sol (Image credit: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

Sometimes the roads to victories in cycling have the most unlikely of starting-points. And such was the case for Ruta del Sol stage 1 winner Rune Herregodts (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) when a few weeks ago, he found that he could not start his 20022 race program in France as planned, because his COVID-19 vaccine was “too old.”

“Mentally, I had two very tough days. I was saying to myself, ‘Fuck, I want to start the season,’" the second year pro told a small group of reporters at the Ruta del Sol stage one finish in Iznajar.

"But then I looked at the first day of the route book of the Ruta and I thought [to myself] I would try to win here. Because I knew also that when you win on the first day, you have the leader’s jersey too. So that’s a big bonus."

Herregodts also reasoned - completely correctly - that with a stiff but short uphill finish to open proceedings in this year’s Ruta del Sol, no one team would be likely to work overly hard to bring back an early break on stage 1. Another big part of the jigsaw fell into place, therefore, when he made it into the break of the day after two kilometres of racing.

As he explained, the stage’s uphill finish did not favour the sprinters, “so they wouldn’t keep it together,” but the climb was not long enough for the real mountain specialists to be overly interested in making a GC challenge, either. 

On top of which there was the route. “I knew in the last 10kms the peloton can’t make up a lot of time on the fast descent, and before that it was also quite narrow so you didn’t get the 'washing machine effect’. There really had to be a team chasing. We weren’t going to get caught through natural pressure from the bunch working behind."

“So I thought maybe if we keep it together and are in a strong group they will hesitate. And finally we did it, with a break of eight guys.”

Herregodts was so convinced of his chances that he actually texted his team-mate Lindsay de Vylder a few days before the Ruta start to tell him to make sure he got in the breakaway as well. He also told mechanics to put on special wheels, clincher tyres with latex inner tubes, on his bike for the stage. “I was quite nervous about asking them because it was 9 o’clock at night. But they did it, they gave me the fastest set-up possible, so a big thanks to them,” he said.

The planets further lined up because an issue that often arises in Spain in breaks, he said, of having a language barrier when in a break, did not occur this time round. That meant he also managed to get the message across of racing easier in the first part of the stage so as to be sure the break away had as much energy for the finale, something also confirmed by Stephen Bassett (Human Powered Health) who took second on the stage. 

Finally having eight guys, with De Vylder to work hard on the flatter sections, in the break, was ideal, because as he graphically put it “if you have only two guys in a move like that, you’re dead after 100 kilometres.”

The winner of the last race of the season last year, the Ronde Van Drenthe, if Herregodts' vaccine issues unintentionally set the ball rolling for him to be in Spain not France this February, victory in his first race of 2022 was also thanks in part to some tough preparation over the winter, he explained.

“My handle boards are always close together, which is very aero’ but it takes a lot of power in your triceps to stay in that position,” he said. "So I was practicing in Belgium, riding half an hour on the [banks of the River] Schelde like this. It’s really painful but when you can do it for 200km you can be really aero’ and save a lot of energy.”

For his grand finale, he said, he had hoped to be alone on the last climb but in each of his late attacks on the third category Puerto la Parilla. his lack of race rhythm meant the other rivals kept on closing the gap.

However, knowing he had a fast turn of speed in sprints after 200 kilometres all helped convince him he was in with a shot.

“My teammate Lindsay kept it together on the flatter parts so that was great, and then I thought, 'I cannot give this away. You don’t get many chances like this.'”

“I had to dig so deep but I had to finish it off. I was on the wheel of the American guy, I didn’t know him, but I was hoping he had to slow down.”

“Then at 100 metres he slowed down and then I saw nobody ahead of me. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

Herregodts will go into stage 2 of the Ruta del Sol as race leader, and there is a similarly steep finish in Alcala la Real, which could tempt him to chance his arm. However, after such a great start for the second year pro and his team, fighting against some of the biggest WorldTour teams in the peloton, the Ruta del Sol 2022 is already a major success of their season.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.