Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Wayback Machine: Bakelants takes shock Tour de l'Avenir win

Jan Bakelants
With a profound stage win on Sunday and spending some valuable time in the Tour de France's maillot jaune, Jan Bakelants is finally living up to the hype he was given as a U23 star. Sunday's late breakaway win was Bakelants first professional win in his now 5-year career, which is a bit surprising if one were to look at his last U23 season. Seen as one of Belgium's finest young prodigies, 2008 was a year of excellence for the kid from one of the heartlands of Belgian cycling, Oudenaarde.

Bakelants didn't have just one good performance in 2008. He also had more than a few. That season saw Bakelants take 11 victories including four stage race overall crowns. On the domestic front, Bakelants frequently toed the line against Jérôme Baugnies, Ben Hermans, Thomas De Gendt and Sep Vanmarcke. Taking after his cycling faux-fathers of Flemish lore, Bakelants specialized in the long, solo-breakaways that demoralized the men behind him. For example, take his win at the Fleche Ardennaise in June of that year; Bakelants beat 2nd place Aurélien Duval by an astonishing 3 minutes and 12 seconds. 5th place Jérôme Baugnies? 5 minutes and 47 seconds back. This was not a one-off occurrence either as Bakelants put on similar performances at the Tour de Liege and, more importantly, the 5th stage of the Tour de l'Avenir.

For all of Bakelants' talent, his winning was limited mainly to Belgium and Northern France and up to that point, he was pretty untested on ascents longer than five kilometers. The 2008 edition of the Tour de l'Avenir was still in a time when race organizers were not strapped for cash and were able to put on mammoth races. This race was nine stages plus a prologue and featured talent that is all over the current World Tour (Look at the GC from this race...26 out of 30 are professionals). Heavyweight favorites included Portugal's Rui Costa, France's Jerome Coppel, UCI Mixed Team racer Andrey Amador and American Tejay van Garderen, among many others.

That year's race was something much different than the one we see now. With only one true mountain stage, the majority of the route was made up with rolling hills and what the Tour de France would consider transitional stages, races that are deceptively hard and ones that play to the strengths of riders such as Bakelants. On stage 4, a breakaway of five stayed away and pulled out a big gap on the peloton (thank you five man teams!) and by the time Ricardo van der Velde beat out Matteo Busato in a two-up sprint, the peloton was over three minutes behind. American Peter Stetina slipped on the yellow jersey holding a quite comfortable advantage on the hungry pack but the next day was where the race threw the script out entirely. What commenced was an impressive ad-lib performance...

Stage 5

Within the first five kilometers of the 212.5 kilometer journey from Saint Flour to Carmaux, a breakaway got away and their advantage began to grow as the race traversed through the belly button of France. The breakaway was rather large with eleven riders before hitting the first proper climb; riders including Bakelants, Tejay van Garderen, Maxime Bouet, Blel Kadri, Patrick Gretsch, Michel Kreder, Macej Paterski, Stefano Pirazzi and Mitchell Docker. After getting to a maximum gap of over 4:30, the gap began the fall as the climbs became more frequent, eight in total on the course.

On the Côte de Lussagues, Bakelants attacked his competitors as the gap had dropped under two minutes. On the descent, only van Garderen and Gretsch were able to catch up to the flying Fleming. While the initial breakaway was in tatters, the peloton had detonated and any semblance of control was lost as the gap once again ballooned. After the breakaway finally regrouped through the feedzone, the gap was over 5 minutes. Bakelants proceeded to lead the break over the Côte de la Bastié and then with 52 kilometers left, he dropped his breakaway companions and quickly formed a gap.

Bakelants was gone. 15 kilometers later on the Côte de la Malric, his gap was 1'55" over Gretsch, van Garderen and Paterski while the peloton was over six minutes in arrears. Over the lumpy roads of Midi-Pyrénées, the gap went from 2 minutes to 2:30 and beyond. As he crossed the 10km to go and the summit of the Côte de la Roucarié, Bakelants was suffering but still leading by three minutes on the chasers. The chasing bunch was ceding multiple minutes to the peloton, who had picked up their tempo considerably. On the line after 207 kilometers of riding in the breakaway, Bakelants won with a gap of 3'10" on a group of seven chasers. The peloton came in just over a minute later, lead in by Kristjan Koren. 

Stage 5 results

  1. Jan Bakelants (Belgium)
  2. Mitchell Docker (UCI Mixed) +3'10"
  3. Macej Paterski (Poland)
  4. Blel Kadri (France A)
  5. Michel Kreder (Netherlands)
  6. Patrick Gretsch (Germany)
  7. Maxime Bouet (France B)
  8. Tejay van Garderen (USA)
  9. Kristjan Koren (Slovenia) +4'27"
  10. Sergej Fuchs (Germany) s.t. 
  11. Ben Gastauer (Luxembourg) +4'28"
  12. Rasmus Guldhammer (Denmark)
  13. Romain Zingle (Belgium)
  14. Alexander Porsev (Russia)
  15. Troels Vinther (Denmark)
The Aftermath

The rest of the Tour de l'Avenir was no cakewalk for Bakelants because even though he had a substantial lead headed into the 2nd half of the race, he had legit mountain climbers to contend with. The Stage 6 time trial was won by Estonian Rein Taaramäe as Bakelants did well to only cede a half minute to Jérôme Coppel and 23 seconds to Rui Costa. Stage 7 saw the leader lose another 30 seconds to the small leading group containing Costa, Coppel and others as Dominik Klemme won his 2nd stage of the race. Coppel had chopped a minute off the lead in two days and a legitimate mountain stage was looming.

A summit finish at Guzet was on tap for Stage 8 and Bakelants, someone who was adapt to climbs that were less than 5 kilometers, was making a cartoonish gulp as he looked at the profile. The stage was backloaded with a category two and three category one climbs. Bakelants was dropped on the Port de Lers and had to fight on the short descent before the Col d'Agnes, where he had van Garderen, Fuchs and Coppel for company. There was trouble in the form of the main chasing group behind a streaking Arnold Jeannesson in the form of Rui Costa, Taaramäe, Marcel Wyss, Jarlinson Pantano and Andrey Amador, who were taking time out of the Belgian.

On the climb up to Guzet, it was everyman for himself. Jeannesson was putting in a ride that could possibly see him take yellow. Costa had dropped his companions and was on the red line, doing everything he could to take time out of Bakelants, who was struggling after being dropped by Coppel and was trying to hold onto van Garderen's wheel. Jeannesson celebrated a spectacular win while Costa came in at 1'06" and the countdown started. Wyss and Pantano were followed by Caruso, Coppel and Amador. The feelings in Costa must have been growing with every second that that ticked by but when van Garderen rode in 3'43", he was soon followed by an exhausted Bakelants, who had preserved his lead by 36 seconds.

Van Garderen's final day win into Mirepoix, a solo breakaway to salvage a self-described so-so race, saw Bakelants wrap up his Tour de l'Avenir overall in one of the bigger upsets of the last decade in this race. So this should have been the first of many big wins in the Belgian's career and by his 5th professional year, he should be contending for many race wins, single day affairs and stage races alike..right? Guys? Anyone?

And then what happened...

Like many riders who win big races young or experience a very successful season, the next step can be a bit of a stutter step. Bakelants, who was already signed by Topsport Vlaanderen at that point, joined the Belgian Pro Continental outfit for 2009 and by anyone's standards, he had a successful first year. The Belgian rode well in his suited terrain and netted high overall placings in races such as the Tour of Belgium, Ster Elektrotoer, Tour de Wallonie and a fine 9th in the World Tour stage race, the Eneco Tour. Bakelants even finished 2nd in the ungodly hard GP Triberg-Schwarzwald to Heinrich Haussler. This was a impressive season results wise and featured just two DNF's and this was the first stepping stone.

Then Bakelants moved to OmegaPharma-Lotto for the follow two years. Remove many of the short stage races and one-day races and replace them with the Giro, Vuelta and a few other stage races. Granted, Bakelants did well in both Grand Tour performances with a 36th in the Giro and a solid 18th in the Vuelta but what happened to his wheel house, the shorter stage races and harder one-day races? He went 6th overall in the Tour de Wallonie but that was one of his only races in Belgium.

2011 again saw the Giro-Vuelta double along with races such as Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice and many other stage races. While still his 3rd pro year, he had relatively similar finishes in the Grand Tours with a 22nd overall showing in the Giro and a 31st in the Vuelta. 13th in the Tour de Suisse is solid stuff but he finished just ahead of rouleur-sprinter Juan Jose Rojas. Where was our attacker from l'Avenir? The man with cojones the size of Texas and willing to put it all on the line because even though these finishes were consistent, Bakelants was supposed to be something...different.

Bakelants moved to greener pastures for 2012 in Radioshack-Leopard and by george, they put him in some races that suited his characteristics as a younger rider. 6th in Circuit de la Sarthe, 6th in Tour Down Under, 10th in Eneco Tour and 5th in the Tour de Wallonie...these are not the wins but if he were to focus on these races more, it could show something. His year was once again based on the Giro-Vuelta double and he put in similar GC performances but now he was attacking some stages, particularly the 12th stage of the Giro into Sestri Levante where he was 4th.

While he missed a chunk of spring this year, Bakelants has put in his biggest performances in...guess where...shorter stage races and harder one-day races. 4th in a small sprint in the Swiss GP Kanton Aargau-Gippingen followed by a 3rd overall in the Tour of Luxembourg after attacking the final stage with teammate Bob Jungels. On a hard course in the Belgium National RR, he managed a 3rd place after being stuck in the chasing group behind a flying Stijn Devolder. Even looking at his Tour stage win, Bakelants took it with an opportunistic attack and sheer guts, something that got him a bevy of results as a U23 in 2008.

The point is that just because someone wins the Tour de l'Avenir doesn't make them the next Grand Tour star. Even though it was a ten stage race that year, Bakelants literally won the race on a stage that was peppered with short climbs and while an able climber, the long Pyreneean ascents saw Bakelants lagging behind the elite climbers, a trend that has continued into his elite career. When Bakelants rode two Grand Tours a year, it seemed like Lotto were trying to make him into something that he wasn't. It seems like in every big results he has had in his short career has come from either a) an opportunistic breakaway or b) consistent riding on flat to hilly terrain in a stage race. It seems like Bakelants is finally getting his grove in the pro scene and hopefully his future teams race him in things that are more suited to his skill set.

For every Nairo Quintana there is a Sylvain Calzati. For every Tejay van Garderen there is a Sergej Fuchs. Not every strong U23 rider is going to be a star even those that his great heights in the U23 scene. Look where Jérôme Baugnies is now after being a fantastic U23 rider...he is fighting for a contract earning a whopping zero Euros per month. Jan Bakelant's ride in the 2008 Tour de l'Avenir was an awesome performance and really is one for the history books but what should also be examined is the pro career afterwards. I think he was bookmarked as the rider of the future by some and because of that, he was targeting races that, while posting solid results, were perhaps not the races where he could be getting great results.

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