Alexis Gougeard (AG2R La Mondiale) continued the tradition of breakthrough wins for young riders in the Vuelta a Espana on Friday after the 22-year-old soloed home for the biggest victory of his career at Avila.
Gougeard’s win, France’s first in the 2015 Vuelta, had fans recalling when now-established French star Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) claimed the first two Grand Tour victories of his career in mountain stages of the 2013 Vuelta. But in an exceptionally profitable Vuelta for up-and-coming stars, the AG2R La Mondiale rider is also far from the first young rider from a wide variety of nations to take a breakthrough win here in 2015.
Holland’s Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) is the most obvious case of a rider who has dramatically raised the bar in the 2015 Vuelta. But so too, have the stage wins and/or spells in the lead for Australian Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge), Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and Belgian Jesper Steyven (Trek Factory Racing) in the Vuelta’s first week, and for Italian Kristian Sbaragli (MTN-Qhubeka), Holland's Boy van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing) and Portugal’s Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida) in the second. Then on stage 19, it was Gougeard’s turn to celebrate a victory.
Gougeard formed part of a large breakaway on the stage, then bridged across to solo leader Tiago Machado (Katusha) as the group fell apart with some 40 kilometres and the bulk of the second category Alto de la Paramera climb left to race. He then dropped the Portuguese rider 22 kilometres from the finish and after bridging the summit alone, time trialled his way to the line with an impressive 40 second advantage on stage 13 winner and closest pursuer Nelson Oliveira.
“The key was I didn’t panic when Tiago Machado went,” Gougeard said afterwards. “I knew that if I managed to catch him and then stay away over the final climb, then the riders behind would start to watch each other and ask questions about chasing me down.”
The Normandy-born rider had no idea, he said, what kind of gap he had to his advantage as he tackled the final real obstacle, the uphill section of pavé leading into Avila, “because it was so noisy, I couldn’t hear what was going on.” But it proved more than enough.
The winner of the Tour de L’Avenir’s prologue in his final amateur year, 2013, Gougeard has already racked up four wins as a pro, including a stage of the Four Days of Dunkirk and two straight victories in the Classique Loire-Atlantique. But he has no doubt that the Vuelta stage win was the most important of his career so far.
“With this, my Vuelta is a success,” the 22-year-old said, “and it’s a big moment for AG2R La Mondiale as well.” Already present in four breakaways in the Vuelta, the fifth one turned up trumps.
“I had marked down this stage with a cross. I felt very good after the Burgos time trial and I had wanted to get in the break.” But it was above all managing to calculate his strength so well in the last 22 kilometres of the stage to Avila that netted Gougeard his very own breakthrough Grand Tour win.
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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 Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.