There was a moment 16km from the finish of stage five of the Vuelta a España when Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) felt that he was on course to win his maiden Grand Tour stage in his debut three-week race.
The Briton had an advantage of around 50 seconds on the lower slopes of the Alto del Vivero, and behind him no-one had yet attacked from a disjointed chase. All Stewart had to do was pass the thousands of fans, avoid the waving flags, crest the summit and then descend into Bilbao city centre.
His principal objective was to help his teammate and breakaway companion Rudy Molard into the leader’s jersey, but Stewart was also dreaming of winning himself, and he could sense the biggest opportunity of his young career so far.
“I knew if I could get over that final climb towards the front, I could do a good sprint,” he said. “I got myself ahead for that final climb and I thought I was going to hold them off.”
Behind him, though, Marc Soler of UAE-Team Emirates had taken off, and the Spaniard creeped up towards the Briton. Stewart – a sprinter and Classics rider by nature – held off his advances, until he could no more.
“And then Soler came flying past me,” he rued. “I could do nothing. I got back on [to the chasing group] on the descent but both legs just cramped up 5km to go and it was game over.”
Soler held on for the win, but rather than being disheartened, Stewart came back to his team’s bus shouting and screaming with happiness, for Molard had taken red by two seconds from Stewart’s close friend Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious).
“A lot of effort goes into getting the red jersey like that, and once Rudy was there, it was full commitment for him,” Stewart, 22, said. “You work all day for it, it was a long day in the break, and to have it repaid by Rudy going into red is just as good as winning yourself.”
It sounded genuine. This is, after all, a team sport, but individual honours count, too, and Stewart has eyes on his own prize. Can he really win a stage in the remaining two-and-a-half weeks?
“I think I’ve proven today that I probably have the legs for it,” he stated. “It’s just a matter of time. We’ve had a good look at the road book and there’s a couple of stages that probably suit me if it comes down to a sprint and if it’s controlled.
“Or maybe a breakaway day. I’ve proven I’m strong enough to go into a breakaway. With the cramp, it’s something we can look at with the team and the doctor, and see how we can improve things nutrition-wise.”
Earlier in the year, Stewart’s career appeared to be at a crossroads, in spite of his young age. In March he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and didn’t compete in a stage race until early May.
He has responded and adapted well to the diagnosis, and two weeks ago Stewart won his first ever professional race, triumphing in a sprint at the Tour de l’Ain. His win in France has given him more than just confidence.
“I surprised myself how well I was climbing today but I was climbing well at the Tour de l’Ain and I have carried that form into here,” he added.
“It was a tough year with my Crohn’s diagnosis and I didn’t really know how it was going to affect me going forward.
“So to find my level again was really nice. I had a bit of belief from the Tour de l’Ain and I always knew I had it in my legs and that it [winning] was only a matter of time.”
His teammate is now the leader of the race, and Stewart is buoyed by his own performances. He just hopes if he finds Wright in a breakaway with him again, it’s he who keeps up the winning formula.
“I train a lot with Fred and if I do sprints against him, it’s 60/40 in my favour,” he smiled. “It’s only a matter of time before Fred wins a stage.”