Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal) let out a guttural roar as he crossed the line to win stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, and he was still screaming his head off as he rounded the bend beyond the finish line and wheeled to a halt by his team bus. It was a visceral display of emotion and it turns out it was all inspired by the rider most famous for wearing his heart on his sleeve, Thomas Voeckler.
Speaking in his winner's press conference in Lleida, Wallays recalled the uncanny similarities between Thursday's Vuelta stage and the 2014 Paris-Tours, where, as a 25-year-old, he beat the Frenchman in a two-up sprint from the breakaway.
"The first time I make it to finish line in a break was Paris-Tours and I learned a lot from Thomas Voeckler. Here I did the same," he said.
"In Paris-Tours we were with 11 guys, I think, and Voeckler already had many victories. He said 'we go easy, easy, easy, easy, because everyone wants to sprint and if you close the gap too early they go on the attack'. So we went easy until 40 kilometres to go and then went hard. Then me and Voeckler we went full until one kilometre to go."
Wallays only had two companions this time, Sven Erik Bystrom (UAE Team Emirates) and Jetse Bol (Burgos-BH), but he issued the same messaged he'd heard four years previously.
"We spoke immediately and everyone agreed we would accelerate in the last 45 kilometres," he said. "We knew the peloton was playing with us – it's always the same – but in the last 25km we still had two mins so we knew we had a chance."
The 25-year-old Belgian had done his homework and knew that, like at Paris-Tours, the peloton's numerical advantage would be mitigated by the brisk tailwind, and the coherence of their chase disrupted by the technical final phase of the stage.
"I studied the parcours very closely with my director. First of all, I put on a 54, the biggest gear, because I knew it was a tailwind," he said. "I was with my 54 and downhill I can speed up to 65km/h but in peloton you can't ride faster than that. I knew there were a lot of corners and downhill in the last 25 kilometres.
"That was first thing. Then I did everything to get in the break. After 15km I saw Rick Van Slycke, the Quick-Step DS, and he said, 'They know what you're going to do'. I had something in my mind and I wanted to try it – why not. I said, 'You'll see'."
In the final few kilometres, after Bol had been dropped, the peloton was closing in fast. The fact that third-placed Peter Sagan finished mere metres behind showed just how touch-and-go it was.
Again, the Paris-Tours experience stood Wallays in good stead.
"I played Voeckler's game. Be cool, and focus on him. Back then it was the two of us in the last two kilometres and I only made him nervous because the peloton was coming closer and closer and closer. I made myself focus only on Voeckler and not on the peloton. If they come, they come. For me today it was the same," he said.
"I was on the radio with my DS, I knew that the last kilometre was uphill and that Bystrom was a strong sprinter, and I needed to be cool and focus on Bystrom and the last kilometre. I made Bystrom very nervous I think because he kept good speed until 350 metres to go. At 350 it was a bit uphill and I said 'now's my chance' and I went full – a bit too much maybe but it was enough to get this victory.
"I played poker," Wallays said. "I wasn't scared to lose because I was already happy with the thing we did until the last kilometre. We made a spectacle for the public. They all expected it to be a mass sprint but if they see the breakaway still out there in the last kilometre, they are excited about it, and for me I like that."
Wallays arrived at the WorldTour via the Topsport team, a well-trodden pathway for young Belgian talent. He had taken two major victories in Paris-Tours and Dwars door Vlaanderen but has been unable to repeat the feat at Lotto Soudal. The past couple of years in particular have been frustrating.
He has missed out on selection for the Tour de France two years in a row – and complained he wasn't informed before the team announced the line-up publicly. The Vuelta a España has been something of an afterthought, and not exactly a successful one.
Last year he crashed heavily early on in the race and soldiered on to Madrid with a broken wrist and two broken ribs. This year it looked like his race might be heading in a similar direction after he was involved in a heavy collision with Simone Petilli on stage 10, but he bounced back to earn redemption in Lleida.
"Last year was very hard for me. I learned a lot because I only focused on time limits. I wanted only to go to Madrid, then went to hospital and found out I had broken bones. This year was also very hard because I was not in top condition, then I had that rash with Petilli," Wallays explained.
"I was very down in that moment because my hip was not so ok, so I thought it would be the same situation. But day-by-day it has been getting better and better, and the result is today, so I'm very happy."
As his roars in Lleida showed, it was something more than happiness.
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