More than ten years after he turned pro and in the latest upturn to his rollercoaster career, Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) finally celebrated a Grand Tour stage win at the 2016 Vuelta a Espana's stage 14 mountain stage atop Aubisque.
Gesink has taken stage wins at races as prestigious as the Tour de Suise and Tour of California (twice), but a Grand Tour stage victory has always eluded the Dutch rider, right up to when he was narrowly defeated by Nairo Quintana last week at the Lagos de Covadonga.
The 30-year-old finally got the result he was looking for on the Aubisque, with a courageous ascent of the French Hors Categorie climb, forming part of the early break then bridging across to a group of late attackers; Kenny Elissonde (FDJ), Egor Sillin (Katusha) and New Zealand team-mate George Bennett.
The stage then came down to a three-way duel between Ellisonde, Gesink and Sillin and the Dutch rider did it the hard way, attacking from the front with 400 metres to go.
Hammering away at the pedals, Gesink managed to open up a narrow but decisive gap to claim the win. Victory in itself would have been sweet enough after a ten-year wait. But on top of that, as Gesink had pointed out to Cyclingnews earlier in the race, in this year's Vuelta there was also the major challenge of his overcoming a difficult period of concussion and injury - something he did in style on Saturday.
"This is really special, it's been a hard year this year, nothing really worked out. I crashed in Suisse" - suffering a bad concussion "and I couldn't train for a long time, and that meant no GC in the Vuelta. But I wanted to do a Grand Tour for stages one time, too," Gesink said.
"But for a long time after Suisse nothing really worked, I was so tired. For weeks, I wanted to sleep not train at all. I went to America in July for a training camp at altitude, so I could train and forget about the Tour. But that didn't work out."
It was only in August that Gesink first raced again at the Tour de L'Ain, and although with no spectacular results in the French stage race, he started to feel a little better. But even before the Vuelta, he told Cyclingnews earlier in the race, his condition was such that could not train for more than three days at a time.
Even so, having taken second in Covadonga, once again on Saturday Gesink made it into a break in the Vuelta's toughest mountain stage, and "With such a large group I was not sure if the best, I didn't feel so good, but the team stayed calm. I tried in the last eight of nine kilometres, I was never sure going to be the best but I surprised myself."
LottoNL-Jumbo's original collective objective had been to ride for the Vuelta GC with Stephen Kruijswijk, Gesink said. Obviously after the 2016 Giro d'Italia leader crashed out on stage 5, fracturing his collarbone when he hit an unmarked bollard, the rest of the team had to reset their goals in Spain completely, with Gesink finally reaping the rewards of that change of direction.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs in my career, but I never thought it would be such a special feeling to win a Grand Tour stage;" Gesink reflected, " At this moment, I want to thank the team staff and all the people who always had trust in me.
"In this team I always have the role to ride for GC, which I like because generally I never have really good days, or really bad days, but I'm consistent. But here I wanted to focus on stages, now I had this possibility because of all what happened, and maybe I'll look at doing Grand Tours again in the same way, looking for stage wins. It's a very good feeling."
Best of all, as Gesink said, "I feel like I'm really back where I want to be." After his performance on the Aubisque, it would be hard to disagree.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 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. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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