By Andrew Hood
When a blue Discovery Channel jersey streaked out to follow Danilo Di Luca up the La Covatilla climb, even the Spanish TV announcers got it wrong, thinking it was either Tom Danielson or Triki Beltrán.
It was neither. Discovery had another, lesser-known option on the final climb Wednesday: Janez Brajkovic, a 115-pound, 22-year-old Slovenian who has been pulling surprises ever since beating the favored Thomas Dekker in the U-23 world time trial championships in 2004.
On Wednesday, he almost delivered an even bigger stunner.
“Janez was impressive today, and even though I knew he was strong, I didn’t expect him to be able to stay with Di Luca,” said teammate Beltrán. “Despite being so thin, he’s a great time trialist and has a great future ahead of him.”
The future is now for Brajkovic, who finished runner-up in the stage and surged into second overall, just four seconds behind Di Luca.
“The fact that he could stay with the ProTour champion and a guy as explosive as Di Luca and almost win the stage was an impressive performance,” said Discovery Channel sport director Johan Bruyneel. “I know he’s good, but we didn’t expect him to be up there today. We are very satisfied.”
Brajkovic came into the Vuelta with no pressure other than gaining experience of his first grand tour and building strength for next season. The Slovenian has already posted impressive results in his first full season as a pro, including fifth overall at the Tour de Suisse and the Tour of Georgia, and fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya.
A strong climber with top-flight time-trial credentials, the rail-thin 22-year-old barely fills out his Discovery Channel jersey. He hails from Novo Mesto, a hilly region of Slovenia, one of the new republics born out of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
Friends turned him on to biking after school, and he worked in a factory one summer to save money to buy his first bike. In 2001, he won his first race in Slovenia; by 2004, he won the Trofeo Piva in Italy (a race won by his now-teammate Yaroslav Popovych in 2001).
Discovery Channel brass are keen on Brajkovic. Bruyneel sought him out after watching him beat Dekker in the U23 world’s, and he joined the team midway through last season.
“Today he impressed everyone. He came to this Vuelta very relaxed and he doesn’t feel any pressure. The team is giving him time to develop,” Bruyneel said. “He’s a big talent.”
Despite tipping the scales at a mere 53kg (about 115lbs), with biceps that might be better described as uniceps, Bjajkovic thinks and dreams like a heavyweight. He already has set his sights on becoming the first Slovenian winner of the Tour de France. Confidence is something not lacking in this young rider’s profile.
Brajkovic’s strong ride underscored a strong performance by the Disco crew. Benoit Joachim and Vladimir Gusev were away in the early, 16-man breakaway to take pressure off the rest of the team, and Beltrán, Brajkovic and Danielson all finished in the top 10.
“It was a great way to start the first hard stage of the Vuelta,” Bruyneel said. “All that was missing was the victory.”
From the looks of Brajkovic, that probably won’t be very long in coming.