As the Tour de France rolls towards its tough final week in the Pyrenees Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) lies in fifth position in the general classification, currently trailing leader Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) by 3:51. His strong performance on the short, steep climb to the runway in Mende strengthened that position as the 26-year-old finished in fourth place, gaining time on rivals Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank).
To many, the Belgian might be considered as the most surprising rider in the general classification, although his presence comes after steadily making progressions since turning pro in 2004.
As a youngster, the man from Morkhoven, east of Antwerp, claimed the win in the time trial at the world championships of 2001. Since then the Flemish rider has grown quietly in the teams of Johan Bruyneel (US Postal and Discovery Channel) and since 2007 he's developed into a stage racer at the Belgian Lotto team (Predictor-Lotto, Silence-Lotto and now Omega Pharma-Lotto).
From 2008 the results started to come, finishing sixth in the Giro d'Italia and last year he finished 15th while debuting in la grande boucle. If he can avoid an off day it seems obvious that he'll be bettering that result this year.
Before the Tour de France, Van den Broeck declared his aspirations of a top 10 result but now the top five seems realistic. "I'm still going for the top 10. It would be stupid to think it's over already, there's still a week of racing left; anything can happen," he told Cyclingnews.
When asked what he thought during today's stage when he looked back on the final climb and noticed that he had dropped Andy Schleck, Van den Broeck replied, "Nothing, I only thought about reaching the top." Clearly the Belgian is modest even though he's not hiding away in the peloton.
During the Alpine mountain stages he was always riding in the front of the peloton, right behind the leading team but ahead of riders like Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong.
Today his team led the peloton on the first stretches of the climb heading towards the runway that held the finishing straight. "The team has a lot of confidence in me and that's pleasant. First there was [Sebastian] Lang who did a perfect job and then [Daniel] Moreno; everybody was super. They perfectly set the pace. I think we showed balls by taking the initiative on the climb," Van den Broeck explained.
He only lost 10 seconds on Contador and gained time on direct rivals Levi Leipheimer and Robert Gesink, finishing together with Andy Schleck.
The time loss Schleck was to be expected according to Van den Broeck, who added that he would lose more time later in this Tour de France. "I'm not expecting him to bonk but I expect him to have one less good day. It can happen to me as well. Every day is important in the Tour, especially if you're in the mix for the general classification.
"I'm hoping that I already had my off-day, on the Col de la Madeleine. [losing almost three minutes on Schleck and Contador]. Of course I'm worried that I can have an off-day in one of the three mountain stages in the Pyrenees.
"To me there are only three mountain stages left. The stage to Pau [stage 16] is a very tough stage but for the general classification it shouldn't be taken into account. The Peyresourde will hurt at the beginning but the other stages are much more important."
The way he is riding right now, Van den Broeck's fifth place is well deserved. Taking in account his excellent skills against the clock for the 52km time trial on the penultimate day it seems that his own goal of claiming a top10 result in Paris seems a reachable one.
It's been a long time since the Belgian cycling fans had a true Grand Tour rider to cheer for but with Van den Broeck they've surely got one again.
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