Winning stages certainly wasn’t supposed to be part of Rafal Majka’s role at the Tour de France, but after landing victory at Risoul on Saturday, he dismissed the idea that he wasn’t supposed to be here at all.
A late addition to the Tinkoff-Saxo team a week before the race, Majka had initially voiced his opposition to the idea on social media, pointing out that he had yet to recover from his exertions at the Giro d’Italia, where he reached Trieste in sixth place.
Speaking to reporters after soloing to victory on the Tour’s second Alpine stage, however, the young Pole insisted that he had never had any qualms about making his Tour debut on short notice. "It’s not a true story that I didn’t want to do the Tour," he said.
Majka denied, too, that he had been called up only as a replacement from Roman Kreuziger, who was pulled from the Tinkoff-Saxo roster just a week beforehand due to alleged abnormalities in his biological passport.
"I don’t think so because before the Tour de France, I spoke with [manager] Bjarne [Riis] and my directeur sportif Fabrizio Guidi, and if Roman was doing the Tour, I would have also been in the team. That was no problem because after the Giro I had a little bit of rest and I was ready for the Tour de France."
Whether as a replacement for Kreuziger or a complement to him, Majka lined up at the Tour aiming to serve a similar role as the Czech in the service of Alberto Contador. Alongside Nicolas Roche and Michael Rogers, he was to be one of Contador’s last men in the mountains, but after the Spaniard crashed out on the road to La Planche des Belles Filles, the complexion of the team’s Tour altered completely.
"When they told me that I would do the Tour, but I was to do the first week easy so that I would be fresh and ready to help Alberto in the mountains," he said. "But unfortunately Alberto had bad luck with the crash, so we’ve been trying to win a stage instead."
Majka’s is one of the more remarkable origin stories in the Tour peloton. Invited to train with the then-Saxo Bank team as a raw 21-year-old amateur in February 2011, he so impressed in following Contador on the climbs that he was offered the chance to turn professional immediately.
7th and 6th places overall in the past two editions of the Giro d’Italia were evidence of Majka’s potential but midway through his fourth season as a professional, he was still waiting for his first win. He sensed his opportunity at Chamrousse on Friday, slipping clear with Leopold König after a brief détente in the front group, but they were caught and passed by yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali in the finale and Majka had to settle for second place.
Not to be deterred, Majka calculated that he simply needed a larger head start on Nibali on the second summit finish of the Tour’s Alpine double header. After infiltrating the large early break over the Col du Lautaret, Majka bided his time on the Col d’Izoard and then dropped his rivals one by one on the final haul to Risoul.
When Nibali once again eased his way clear of the overall contenders with four kilometres to go, Majka was just under 50 seconds up the road, and he battled gamely to retain a 24-second buffer by the finish line to seal the win.
"Yesterday I was second, and this morning when I spoke to my teammates and Bjarne, I said that if I got in the breakaway I would win the stage," Majka said. "When we had 1:10, I attacked and dropped Joaquim Rodriguez and the guy from Cannondale [Alessandro De Marchi – ed.], and I tried to win alone. When the gap was 35 seconds with two kilometres to go, I had the motivation to keep fighting for the win."
Whatever the degree of his initial misgivings about riding the Tour, two weeks into his debut, Majka is taking a shine to La Grande Boucle. Almost two hours off the yellow jersey and with three demanding days in the Pyrenees to come next week, there is ample opportunity to add to his tally.
"This is my first professional win, so I’m happy," Majka said. "But the Tour is still long, so maybe another will come."