A decade has passed since Rein Taaramäe last landed stage victory at the Vuelta a España, and when he won atop La Farrapona in 2011, the Estonian was still being touted as a potential Grand Tour contender after winning the Tour de l’Ain as a youngster and then placing 11th overall at that year’s Tour de France.
Taaramäe’s career didn’t quite turn out that way, but his ability as a climber has been in evidence repeatedly in the intervening period. It was clear in 2015, for instance, when he won the overall title at the Vuelta a Burgos, or on the following year’s Giro d’Italia, when he soloed to victory at Sant'Anna di Vinadio on a tumultuous final weekend.
Headline successes have been thinner on the ground in recent seasons, but the 34-year-old with Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux has remained an aggressive presence. In the opening week of this year’s Giro, for instance, he was hunting both stage victory and the pink jersey on the sodden stage to Sestola.
Taaramäe’s double raid didn’t come off then, but he was minded to try again on the opening mountain stage of the Vuelta, thanks in part to the encouragement of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert directeur sportif Valerio Piva, who realised that Primož Roglič and Jumbo-Visma might be amenable to ridding themselves of the red jersey.
“I have a very smart sports director, Valerio Piva, and yesterday we spoke about trying both to win the stage and take the leader’s jersey,” Taaramäe said after dropping Joe Dombrowski (UAE Team Emirates) and Kenny Elissonde (Trek-Segafredo) in the final 3km of the stiff climb to the finish. “I believed a lot in myself today because I’m in good shape. It was all about the peloton catching us or not.”
Taaramäe was part of the eight-man move that formed inside the opening kilometres of the 202km stage, and it soon became apparent that Piva’s hunch about Jumbo-Visma was correct, as the break was allowed to establish a lead of almost nine minutes. That advantage tumbled rapidly on the final approach to Picón Blanco, but by the time the ascent began, Taaramäe realised that both stage honours and the maillot rojo were within reach.
“Once I saw that we were going to stay away, it was about how good Kenny and Joe were going to be, because I know they have really good qualities,” Taaramäe said. “I didn’t know I could beat them, but I believed it because I’d beaten them many times before. When I won my stage on the Giro, Joe was third, and he was up there with me again today, and we were fighting each other again.”
Taaramäe began his professional career in France, signing with Cofidis in 2008 having spent some formative years racing as an amateur in Saint-Amand-Montrond. Following short spells at Astana and Katusha, he returned to France in 2018 to join Direct Energie, before moving to Belgian outfit Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux ahead of this season. The squad are in their debut season in the WorldTour and possess one of the lowest budgets in the top flight, but they have now scored stage wins in two Grand Tours this season following Taco van der Hoorn’s triumph on the corresponding stage of the Giro.
“I think it’s a really big thing for this team to win another stage inside three days and to have the leader’s jersey too,” Taaramäe said. “It’s super, super important.”
The double success also marked a personal triumph for Taaramäe, who set out from Burgos aware that he has more Grand Tours in his past than his future. As he raced towards Picón Blanco, he was mindful that such an opportunity might not present itself again.
“It’s very big, because I’m 34 years old and I don’t have many years left to try to do this. I wanted it for myself and my family,” said Taaramäe, who will carry a lead of 25 seconds over Elissonde and 30 over Roglič into stage 4, a flat run from El Burgo de Osma to Molina de Aragón.
“I’ve won stages at the Giro and the Vuelta before, but I’ve dreamed a lot to have leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour, to enjoy the jersey and see how it would feel.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.