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It’s taken the taciturn Belgian eight years to score his first major win
Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This is the 17th installment.
When Jurgen Van den Broeck crossed the finish line in St. Pierre-de-Chartreuse on Monday afternoon to win the opening stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, years of waiting for this moment exploded as his right fist punched the air and his normally Buster Keaton face warmed with a teeth-gritting smile.
Since joining the elite pro ranks with the U.S. Postal Service team in 2004 at age 21, this stoic Belgian had never won a major race. His palmarès does include first places in half a dozen Belgian criteriums, notably the one in 2009 at Herentals, the hometown he shares with Belgian legend Rik Van Looy, but such minor races aren’t ones to get too excited about.
2011 wins for UCI ProTeams
(in UCI .1 races and higher through June 6)
1. HTC-Highroad 25 (nine riders)
2. Team RadioShack 16 (10 riders)
3. Rabobank 16 (six riders)
4. Omega Pharma-Lotto 16 (four riders)
5. Garmin-Cervélo 15 (nine riders)
6. Lampre-ISD 15 (seven riders)
7. Movistar 14 (seven riders)
8. Sky 13 (seven riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 13 (five riders)
10. Saxo Bank-SunGard 13 (four riders)
11. Leopard-Trek 11 (five riders)
12. Liquigas-Cannondale 10 (five riders)
13. Euskaltel-Euskadi 6 (four riders)
14. Astana 5 (four riders)
15. Katusha 5 (three riders)
16. AG2R-La Mondiale 3 (three riders)
17. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
18. BMC Racing 3 (one rider)
Van den Broeck has always had talent. His early claim to fame was winning a gold medal in the junior men’s time trial at the 2001 worlds in Lisbon, Portugal — although he took the 19.2km TT by less than half a second over Ukraine sensation Oleksandr Kvachuk, who went on to win the road race. But the young Belgian struggled as a pro.
His best international result in three years with the U.S. Postal (later Discovery Channel) team was eighth in the 2005 Eneco Tour. But his true qualities began to emerge after joining Predictor-Lotto (now Omega Pharma-Lotto) four years ago. In that first year with the Belgian squad he placed 74th at the Giro d’Italia, his first grand tour, and improved that to seventh in the 2008 Giro, albeit 6:30 behind winner Alberto Contador.
Van den Broeck continued his steady progress with 15th overall at the 2009 Tour de France, improving to fifth last year, although he achieved that first Belgian top-five at the Tour in 24 years largely below the radar. And he still had no significant victories, except for those local crits.
“I was so obsessed by getting that first victory that it never came,” Van den Broeck told the press on Monday. “It was sports psychologist who helped me remove that obsession from my head.”
Even so, after several weeks of altitude training and scouting courses for next month’s Tour, Van den Broeck came into this week’s Dauphiné in Tour-preparation mode rather than bidding for victory. He was 15th in Sunday’s brief prologue TT, 14 seconds back of stage winner Lars Boom of Rabobank, which showed he was in decent form. But the fairly gentle final climb up through the limestone gorges of the Chartreuse Massif to Monday’s stage 1 finish didn’t appear to be one that favored a steady climber like Van den Broeck.
Entering the final 10km in the middle of the peloton, Van den Broeck said he was chatting with his teammate Jürgen Roelandts and told him that he had good legs. So Roelandts, who has won a bunch of races including the Belgian national road tile in 2008, suggested that if he was feeling that strong it might be a good idea to try an attack.
[And so Van den Broeck moved up to the head of the bunch and he was ready for action when HTC-Highroad’s Kanstantin Sivtsov accelerated as the grade increased to about 8 percent 7km from the finish. “When Sivtsov attacked,” Van den Broeck said, “my directeur sportif (Herman Frison) said to me, ‘Go!’ And I gave it everything.”
That wasn’t the end of the story because French champion Thomas Voeckler of Europcar quickly bridged across and his aggression forced Sivtsov to fall behind. Voeckler then gapped Van den Broeck, but the Belgian caught back as the gradient eased, and when it looked like the 18-strong chase group would catch them with 3km to go, Voeckler sat up and Van den Broeck put his head down.
There, using his in-built time-trial skills and a ferocious determination to get that breakthrough victory, the Omega-Lotto leader swished along a flat but curvy section of the Guiers Mort Gorge to eke out an 18-second lead before hitting the last-kilometer ramp to the finish line in the alpine village of St. Pierre-de-Chartreuse.
His inexperience at winning showed when Van den Broeck couldn’t click his zipper into place and that toothy grin and arm-punching salute happened above a white-mesh-covered chest. “I’ve dreamed about this for so many years that I can’t quite believe it,” he said. “I’m like a flower that blooms late.”
The immediate result for this late bloomer was a move to second place on GC behind an early-bloomer, Alexander Vinokourov of Team Astana, who won the Dauphiné at his first attempt 12 years ago. In St. Pierre-de-Chartreuse, Vinokourov, now 37 and in his last season, said, “This yellow jersey proves that I’m still capable of doing great things in cycling.”
That was clear on Sunday afternoon in St. Jean-de-Maurienne when the veteran Kazakh stormed up the short climb to the finish, his face a mask of pain and effort, to stop the clock for second place, two seconds behind prologue specialist Boom. Vinokourov, who has also been altitude training since winning a stage and placing third at last month’s Tour de Romandie, exclaimed (in English): “Vino is back!”
And, after his debut international victory at age 28, Van den Broeck might well say: “VDB has arrived!”