Jake Stewart had a dual mandate on the road to Bilbao on stage 5 of the Vuelta a España. His primary duty was to try to help Groupama-FDJ teammate and fellow escapee Rudy Molard into the red jersey, but that didn’t preclude him from seeking stage victory for himself.
The stiff Alto del Vivero, tackled twice in the finale, didn’t lend itself to Stewart’s talents, and he was duly dropped on the first ascent before scrambling his way back on over the other side. After the break crossed the finish line in Bilbao for the first time with 26km remaining, Stewart reasoned that attack was his best form of defence.
Stewart quickly amassed a lead of 50 seconds over a breakaway that had long since lost any cohesion, and when he maintained a sizeable part of his buffer on the lower slopes of the Vivero, stage victory suddenly seemed within his grasp. Those hopes, however, would be dashed by Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates), who attacked forcefully from the chasing group, catching and passing the Briton on the upper reaches of the climb.
“Once we got Rudy and myself in the breakaway, there was one objective: to get Rudy into red again,” Stewart said afterwards. “The stage win was also on my mind, and I knew if I could over that final climb towards the front, then I could do a good sprint. I got myself ahead before that final climb and I thought I was going to hold them off, but then Soler came flying past me and I could do nothing.”
Stewart had already done plenty by then. The 22-year-old rode generously on Molard’s behalf after the decisive break of thirteen formed 70km into Wednesday’s rugged run through the Basque Country, and he was also able to offer valuable advice to his teammate about the biggest threat to his virtual overall lead.
Stewart’s regular training partner Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) was also aboard the break and just four seconds behind Molard in the overall standings. With a bonus of ten seconds on offer to the stage winner, Molard could not afford to allow Wright to be first across the line in Bilbao and he marked the Briton tightly on the run-in, having failed to drop him on the climbs.
“With 60k to go to the finish, I said to Rudy, ‘You need to drop Fred, because if not he’ll roll you in a sprint,’” Stewart said. “I train a lot with Fred and if I do sprints against him, it’s kind of 60-40 in my favour. So I knew if it came down to a sprint [with Molard], then Fred was going to have it.”
Wright, fresh from an all-action Tour de France, duly outsprinted Molard on Bilbao’s Gran Vía, albeit for third place, as the lone escapee Soler held on for stage victory while Daryl Impey (Israel Premier Tech) snatched second place. Molard thus took the red jersey for the second time in his career with two seconds to spare over Wright.
Stewart, stricken by cramp in the final 5km, crossed the line 3:30 down in twelfth place and he was stopped by a television crew before he even had time to check on whether Molard had done enough to move into the overall lead. “He got the red jersey? Ah perfect, this was the plan today and we worked hard for it,” said Stewart. “It was a long day in the break, you pull all day and to have it repaid with Rudy going into red is just as good as winning yourself.”
Stewart arrived at this Vuelta buoyed by the first victory of his professional career on the opening day of the Tour de l’Ain. His relief at opening his account that day was palpable after the early part of his sophomore season had been ruined by a Crohn’s disease diagnosis. The Coventry native only started his campaign in late April, but his form was visibly in crescendo as the summer drew on.
“It was a tough year anyway with my Crohn’s diagnosis at the start of the year, so I didn’t know how it was going to affect me going forward. To find my level again was really nice,” said Stewart, who caught the eye in 2021 with second place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “I got a bit of belief from Tour de l’Ain. I knew I had it in my legs and it was only a question of time, but it was a big relief when that finally came.”
On the evidence of Stewart’s cameo on the road to Bilbao, there is plenty more to come.