Stewart thriving in Groupama-FDJ leadership role at Étoile de Bessèges

Etoile de Besseges 2021 - Tour du Gard - 51St Edition - 1st stage - Bellegarde - Bellegarde - 141 km - 03/02/2021 - - photo Roberto Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2021
Jake Stewart of Groupama-FDJ finished seventh on stage 3 and wears the best young rider jersey (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

The Étoile de Bessèges may be Jake Stewart’s first race at the start of his first full season as pro, but it says a great deal for his potential that the 21-year-old Briton is one of Groupama-FDJ’s protected riders in the French race.

The fastest sprinter on the French squad, Stewart was ninth on the opening stage and was well set to contest the bunch sprint on stage two until Edvald Boasson Hagen (Total Direct Énergie) crashed in front of him as the leaders circled a roundabout well inside the final kilometre. 

Despite missing out on the sprint, Stewart nevertheless started the third stage in the white jersey of best young rider and took advantage of his punch on the climbs to join the break of the day that was packed with star names. He would finish seventh on the stage and move into sixth in the general classification.

“Today’s stage suits me more than a pure sprint stage,” the 21-year-old Briton told Cyclingnews at the start Friday in Bessèges. 

“There are some climbs that are hard enough to maybe drop some of the pure sprinters if the racing’s hard enough and they’re easy enough for me to get over no problem. If things go to plan and it comes down a reduced bunch sprint then this is a good stage for me,” he added presciently.

According to Stewart, the high level of the peloton at France’s opening stage race has completely changed the style of racing.

“It’s a WorldTour field here, it’s not a point-1 class race. It changes the tactics a lot in a race like this. If there’s only three WorldTour teams it’s obviously a lot harder to control a race, whereas with 11 WorldTour teams here with maybe three or four sprint teams among them, as well as guys who are preparing for the Classics, it’s a lot easier to control. A stage like this one might normally split the field, but given the quality of the peloton it will probably come down to a bunch sprint.”

It turned out that Stewart’s first assessment of the stage was the right one. The race did start very hard, then split on the climbs, and the young Briton was had the position and the legs to make it into the lead group, alongside the likes of Egan Bernal, Michał Kwiatkowski, Philippe Gilbert and eventual stage winner Tim Wellens.

“It was a really hard start and no one was letting the break go. I had to suffer and try to get over the early climbs. Once the elastic finally snapped, I made sure I was there and it went to the line,” Stewart told Cyclingnews at the finish. “I had fatigue in my head, fatigue in my legs, and in the sprint I lost concentration a bit. When I opened up I just went into the barriers a little bit and had to brake. It was my own fault. But being seventh on a stage like this, when you see the guys that I was riding with, shows that the condition is good. I’m really happy with how my legs are.”

Like most other riders, Stewart has no clear idea of where he will be racing next. He was supposed to go on to the Tour of the Algarve from Bessèges, but the Portuguese race is one that’s been postponed.

“My next racing could well be the opening weekend of the Classics in Belgium, with more Classics to follow after that. That’s the plan at the moment, but it depends on which races get cancelled or postponed and whether the likes of Arnaud Démare want to step in for some of the Classics,” he said of his team leader.

Inevitably, his preparation for the season was complicated by the Covid-related restrictions. “I had to spend the winter in the UK, but put in lots of good work at home,” said Stewart, who’s from Coventry but has just bought a home in Manchester.

“I came over to France a week before the GP Marseillaise, but although I’ve not had any training camps I’ve done that work in the UK and then I had a good week in the south of France.”

Last year, his final one with the Groupama development team, he missed out on the chance to race in the under-23 versions of the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem when they were cancelled, but ended up riding the elite edition Flanders in October.

“I’ve already got a little bit of experience of those races, so I can go there with a bit more confidence this year and hopefully get some nice results for the team,” he said.

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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).