A few minutes before Chris Horner strode onto the mist-enshrouded winner's podium of the Vuelta a España, a rider 19 years his junior, France's Kenny Elissonde (Fdj.fr) celebrated his first Grand Tour win at the end of a spectacular breakaway following stage 20.
It has been an exceptional Vuelta for France this year, with four stage wins to date, three of them in difficult high mountain stages and going to riders, Elissonde and the equally impressive Warren Barguil (Argos-Shimano) who are only just in their twenties and in Elissonde's case, riding his first three-week race. So many breakthrough wins in a Grand Tour, which has in the last decade proved tough going for the French, augers well for them.
Part of a group of nearly three dozen breakaways, Elissonde moved ahead with Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) on the Cordal. Whilst it can be argued that Tiralongo dropped back to help teammate Vincenzo Nibali, the Frenchman's sheer determination to stay ahead on the slopes of Spain's hardest climb was ultimately what gave him the victory.
"I had very little info, I barely knew what was going on on the Angliru," Elissonde, who won the Ronde De L'Isard, a hugely prestigious French amateur race, in 2011, but whose only previous pro victory was a stage in Paris-Correze last year.
"I had no times until very late on. In the fog you couldn't see anything, and it was impossible to know if I was going to make it."
"Finally the support car got through, and I learned I had about 1:20 [gap]." In the end, that was barely 26 seconds, but it was enough.
Elissonde has hit the big time with a vengeance, for all he rode well this spring, taking fourth at the Green Mountain stage of Oman and eighth overall. But as he put it himself "if you had told me this morning I would win on the Angliru, one of the most mythical summits of the world and on a very tough course, I wouldn't have said it was possible."
"On top of that, I got in the breakaway, but early on I had very bad legs. I didn't know when I got to the top of the [third-category] first climb of the day if I could stay away." Finally, though, on a rather bigger challenge than a third category. Elissonde took a win that will remain one of the outstanding achievements of his whole career.
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