Ponomar shows Ukraine champion's jersey in breakaway at Circuit de la Sarthe

Ukrainian champion Andrii Ponomar (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli)
Ukrainian champion Andrii Ponomar (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli) rides in the breakaway at Circuit Cycliste Sarthe (Image credit: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Back to racing for the first time since the war began in his country, Ukrainian national champion Andrii Ponomar of Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli made the front group in the rain-soaked stage 3 of Circuit de la Sarthe in France. 

He surrendered with 5km to go, while Georg Steinhauser (EF Education-EasyPost) was the last escapee to get caught before race leader Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) overhauled Kévin Vauquelin (Arkéa-Samsic) at the line.

The earlier move looked like a victory for Ponomar, whose season was disrupted by the war in Ukraine

"He pulled out on the last stage of Gran Camiño [on February 26]", sports director Giampaolo Cheula explained. "It was the beginning of the war and he was strongly affected. The team did everything to bring his mother and his 7-year-old little sister to Italy after they spent two weeks hiding in a bunker."

Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli's Giovanni Ellena, head director sportiff, and the non-governmental organisation La Memoria Viva managed to get Ponamar's family from the Polish border to the team's home in Piedmont one month ago. They have since relocated to Vicenza, along with EF Education-EastPost's Mark Padun under the wing of former time trial World Champion Serhiy Honchar (in 2000).

"Compared to one month ago, Andrii is more serene," Cheula said. "We're happy to see him like this. Today he demonstrated being strong again. He was motivated to break away this morning. In France, breakaways can work out. It didn't today but there was a chance. He did a nice race.  He has the strong desire to show his skills."

A smiling Ponomar came out of the team's camper-van to talk about the race to Cyclingnews

"Today I wanted to break away because I saw that it was going to be a hard day with wind and rain," said the native from Chernihiv – a town now described as a complete ruin. 

"Therefore I warmed up before the stage started. After 10 kilometres or so, the breakaway went. I took it and we swapped turns pretty well. We always kept a good rhythm. I could have won today's stage. The peloton caught us only two kilometres before the end. I was thinking of jumping away with five kilimetres to go and it might have worked, but I had already spent a lot of energy and I was a bit cooked.

"I felt some fatigue because I got bronchitis before this race but now I'm confident that I'm finding good legs ahead of the Giro d'Italia."

The youngest-ever participant in the Corsa Rosa at the age of 18 last year, Ponomar completed the race.

"There's still one month before the Giro", he added. "For now, it's difficult for me to know in which shape I will be in May. I've been hit badly by bronchitis so I'm still on a recovery plan."

Ponomar will take part in the Giro di Sicilia next week. After his strong showing at Circuit de la Sarthe, he's likely to make the final lineup of Gianni Savio's squad and appear with his national champion jersey as a flag bearer at the team's presentation on May 4 in Budapest, Hungary, a country that has a border with the Ukraine where his father is currently fighting for the nation's freedom.

"We know that his dad is a soldier in Donbas [region of Ukraine] but that's nothing new," Cheula said. "It's been his job since 2014. But Andrii doesn't talk about it so we don't ask him. We understand that he is much more informed about what's happening in the Ukraine through social media than we do through the mainstream networks."

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