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The AG2R-Citroën rider put two years’ worth of injury woes behind him when he fended off the baying chase of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) to claim a convincing solo win on stage 9.
Jungels was forced to skip last year’s Tour de France after he was diagnosed with an iliac artery endofibrosis a month earlier and had to undergo surgery to treat it. The victory was Jungels’ first — outside of his national titles — since he won Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in the spring of 2019.
“It’s such a relief of many frustrating months and years coming down and I’m just happy now,” Jungels told the press in his winner’s press conference. “It was very tough the last two or three years. Last year, we finally found the source of the problem and I had a surgery. With a lot of motivation, I started this season hoping I would be right away back at my level, which absolutely didn’t happen.
“It just took a long time to recover, we believed at some points in the beginning of the year that I wasn’t going to make it back to that level. Since a couple of weeks, I am very grateful that I have faith in myself. I’m very happy that I have people that have faith in me. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but it’s nice to be at the top of the rollercoaster again.”
Jungels’ rollercoaster has been in full flow over the last few weeks after he was almost pulled from the Tour de France before he even started it. As several riders dropped out due to catching COVID-19, the Luxembourg rider tested positive for the virus just two days before the race but was cleared to ride with just over 24 hours to go after it was deemed that he was not infectious.
He showed no signs that his recent infection was lingering as he charged away from a breakaway group over the penultimate climb.
“I had a slight positive test in Copenhagen. Thanks to the team doctor and the doctor of the UCI, I had another test. Just waiting for that result, you could see that I could start the race on Friday. It was very close, I believe, but it was ok. Luckily, I made it, and luckily, I’m here,” he said.
So far, Jungels is the only known positive case that has been allowed to race with several riders dropping out of the race in recent days due to positive COVID-19 tests. Asked if he thought that the rules around COVID infections should be relaxed, Jungels said it was up to the medical staff to decide.
“It’s probably not the place for me to answer this question. I’m not a doctor,” he said. “I know that I had no symptoms, and I was completely healthy, but you never know if your neighbor, who you could infect, also has no problems. I think it’s not up to the riders and this is why we have experts, and we have doctors to make these kinds of decisions.”
Jungels made his stage-winning move over the penultimate climb of the day, the Col de la Croix, responding to some other moves within the 21-man escape group. After being briefly joined by Simon Geschke (Cofidis), Jungels put on a masterclass of descending off the first category climb to go solo.
The former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner went into the final climb with a 90-second advantage but saw it rapidly reduced as Pinot and then the collective of Jonathan Castroviejo (Ineos Grenadiers) and Carlos Verona (Movistar) set off in chase of him.
A short descent and an easing of the gradient toward the top of the final rise was enough for Jungels to hold onto his diminishing advantage.
“On the last climb, I was afraid Thibaut would catch me and I knew in an uphill sprint it would be quite hard to beat him. It’s always hard to say what goes through your head. I just really tried to focus, keep my head and keep calm,” he said.
“There was communication with the car but not too much until the last climb because I don’t think they were so happy with it. I don’t think they really knew what I was trying to do and I also didn’t really know. I just found myself alone in front and on that last climb I had the manager Vincent [Lavenu] and the director Julien Jurdie behind me in the car. I just asked them to keep me updated with the gap that I had to Pinot so I could manage my effort. I was lucky enough to open a big gap and I just took it. I kept it at the threshold for that last climb.”