Twice in three stages of this Critérium du Dauphiné has a rider infiltrated the breakaway in search of mountains classification points, only to wind up winning the stage itself. Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) still has the yellow jersey for his exploits on Sunday's opening stage, but while the Belgian is a dab hand in a break – a Giro d'Italia and Tour de France stage winner – Koen Bouwman (LottoNL-Jumbo) collected his first victory as a professional on stage 3.
"Maybe I've said it 200 times already, but I can't believe it – I really can't," the 23-year-old said, barely concealing his excitement in the winner's press conference.
Bouwman, in his second season as a pro, was part of a six-man breakaway that defied the odds and held off the peloton on what should have been a straightforward leg from Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to Tullins. Wearing the polka-dot jersey on loan from De Gendt, Bouwman mopped up maximum points over all four categorised climbs. Job done – or so he thought.
As commitment waned in the peloton in the final 20km, the break continued to collaborate strongly and harmoniously, and they entered the final five kilometres with a lead of just under a minute. Bouwman had a teammate, Alexey Vermeulen, in the break, and the American, a year Bouwman's junior, led through to the final couple of hundred metres.
"All six of us were pretty strong. The sprinters teams were going full gas and they couldn't close us down. At 5km to go, it was clear we could make it to the finish," said Bouwman.
"I didn't know what to expect in the sprint but I trusted my own strength – I felt really good today, a lot better than yesterday. I started the sprint pretty early, because I didn't want anyone to surprise me. This is the first time I've been in a position to win a pro race, so I was really nervous, but in the end I crossed the finish line first, so I'm really happy."
Bouwman's family has no links to cycling, nor much interest in it, but he begged for a bicycle from the age of four. As he started racing in his teens, he admitted a career as a pro cyclist didn't seem a realistic prospect.
"When I was young, I was very small, and I couldn't stay with the peloton, but as I got older I got stronger, and at U23 level I got better and better," he explained.
He won a summit finish stage of the Giro della Valle d'Aosta, a prestigious U23 race, in 2015 and was soon a stagiaire at LottoNL, doing enough to earn a first pro contract in 2016. "I started doing well in bigger races and then Lotto picked me up, and now I'm here, winning a stage in the Dauphiné. I can't believe it."
With the Valle d'Aosta stage under his belt, and the KOM jersey in his sights this week, he was asked if he's a natural climber and, as such, someone who could develop into a GC rider.
"For the moment I don't see my self as a big climber. If I have a really good day I can be in the first group really long, but to do a GC or something, for now it's impossible," he said. "Maybe in the future but I don't think I'll be a really good GC guy, or climber, but hopefully I can be a good attack guy. If I make it to the finish I have a good sprint I can rely on."
De Gendt is perhaps the model Bouwman can aspire to, but for now he envisages a battle with the Belgian over the King of the Mountains jersey.
"If De Gendt is not thinking about GC then he's my biggest opponent. I'm going to try to get in the break again, but for me this Dauphiné is already a total success. Everything I achieve now is a bonus."
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