Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) claimed the first victory of his professional career on stage 1 of the Tour de l’Ain when he edged out Romain Cardis (St Michel Auber 93) in a sprint finish in Val-Revermont.
In a breathless finale, attacks from Julian Alaphilippe and his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl teammate Rémi Cavagna (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) threatened to put the race beyond the reach of the fast men.
Cavagna’s determined effort came beneath the flamme rouge, but the Frenchman was swept up by the sprinters within sight of the line.
Groupama-FDJ had worked to tee up a sprint for Stewart, but the Briton still had plenty to do when Cardis opened his effort from distance. Stewart delivered a well-timed effort to pip Cardis at the line, while Stan Van Tricht (QuickStep-AlpaVinyl) came through for third place.
Stewart turned professional with Groupama-FDJ at the end of 2020, and he quickly caught the eye with some assured displays, including second place at last year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Illness delayed the start of Stewart’s 2022 campaign, however, and although he performed strongly at the Four Days of Dunkirk and GP du Morbihan, he had yet to pick up that elusive first victory.
"Finally getting a win after chasing it for so long, it feels like a massive weight off my shoulders," Stewart said on Tuesday.
"We came here with a plan. We had been saying for so long that the first stage of the Tour de l’Ain was perfect for me. Everybody knew their job today and they all did an amazing job."
How it unfolded
The opening stage of the Tour de l’Ain was animated early on by a three-man break featuring Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-EasyPost) and Mattis Lebeau (Nice Metropole Côte d’Azur), and they built up a maximum lead of 3:30 before they were gradually reeled in by the bunch.
The race truly ignited on the undulating finale, with Nicolas Debeaumarche (St Michel-Auber 93) launching an enterprising attack 18km from home. Anthony Delaplace (Arkéa-Samsic) and Cristian Rodriguez (TotalEnergies) bridged across to him, but the three leaders were swept up by the bunch at the base of the punchy final climb of the Côte de Plain Champ, which seemed to lend itself to Alaphilippe’s talents.
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl duly led on the lower slopes of the ascent, though it was Louis Vervaeke, and not Alaphilippe, who launched the first attack. When the Belgian was brought back, Alaphilippe made a dig of his own that stretched the peloton to breaking point, though George Bennet (UAE Team Emirates) and new EF Education-EasyPost signing Andrea Piccolo were among those to hold his wheel.
Bennett led over the summit with 10km to go before Alaphilippe took over on the sinuous descent. The world champion, feeling his way back into action after a recent COVID-19 case, was determined to work through the scales, and he would make another searing acceleration on the rippling run-in, this time to shut down a move from Elie Gesbert (Arkéa-Samsic) and Sebastien Reichenbarch (Groupama-FDJ).
From there, Groupama-FDJ looked to restore some order for an eventual sprint, though Alaphilippe returned to the front within sight of the final kilometre, this time serving almost as a decoy to allow his teammate Cavagna surge clear. Cavagna initially looked to have amassed a winning lead, but he was eventually brought back just as the sprint began.
"I think they knew they didn’t really have much of a chance in the sprint, so they went long," Stewart said of Cavagna’s attack. "With 600 or 700 metres left, I just told Lars [Van den Berg] to go. The guy from Auber came over the top of me, but I know my characteristics. I know I can go long in a sprint, so I wasn’t afraid to do it."
Stewart carries a four-second lead over Cardis into Wednesday’s second stage, though he knows he will not defend the jersey on a day that features two ascents of the Col de Portes, where men like Alaphilippe, Bennett and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) should be to the fore.
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