By Alexander Heflik and Sebastian Moll , Special to VeloNews
The noise reached record levels in Karlsruhe at around 5:30 local time Friday, as a huge crowd of happy Germans cheered the man stepping up to the podium of the Tour de France. It was not stage winner Robbie McEwen this crowd was cheering. Nor was it Lance Armstrong in the yellow jersey, nor Tom Boonen in green. No, the assembled crowd at the Karlsruhe fairgrounds had been following the progress of their hero throughout the day. It was Gerolsteiner’s Fabian Wegmann.
Wegmann stepped onto the Tour podium to have the polka dot jersey of the Tour’s best climber put on his shoulders, smiling, as though the hardships of his 160-kilometer solo break had been blown away. Without a doubt the 25-year-old Wegmann was the man of the day: “This is the greatest moment of my career”, he said, “at least as beautiful as when I received the king of the mountain jersey at the end of last year’s Giro in Milan.” Wegmann was simply happy after a spectacular effort that led him across the French-German border as the first rider of the Tour de France peloton. A true goose bumps moment, as Wegmann recalled as he spoke with VeloNews’s Alexander Heflik.
“The audience in France was super already, but when I came into Germany, it was simply overwhelming. They were standing 20 rows deep in Rastatt, sitting on rooftops. There are no words to describe it.” Tough as his day was, Wegmann thought it was well worth the effort. In addition to being in the unique position of being a German leading the Tour into Germany, he got the polka dot jersey, the day’s award for most combative rider and an unofficial induction into the club of the Barodeurs, those cyclists with a particular affinity for long solo breakaways, those guys Americans like to call “head bangers.”
What a day for Wegmann. He had put on a super show, had instigated the first completely solo-attack of this year’s Tour and had done it with passion. Even Jens Voigt applauded the courage of his young compatriot. The young man from the Westfalian town of Muenster had taken the two GPMs at the Col de la Chapotte after 46 kilometers and at the Col du Hantz after 74 kilometers and then ridden ahead of the peloton on his own for four hours, extending his lead to a maximum of eight and a half minutes. Team sponsor Gerolsteiner must have been very pleased with such extended exposure on national TV.
Yet the stage victory remained a “mission impossible” for Wegmann. “I didn’t really believe I could win the stage”, Wegmann said. “This was a day for the sprinters and so I focused on being the first rider to enter Germany.”
Wegmann said it was the enthusiasm of German fans that carried him through the last part of the break, until 25 kilometers before the finish, before the pack gobbled him up. For the rest of the day, Wegmann leaned back and enjoyed what he had accomplished. And thought to himself that he would very much like to try this again.
VeloNews: What is more valuable to you, the Tour de France king of the mountain jersey or the climber’s jersey that you won at the Giro last year? Fabian Wegmann: They are both very valuable but it was special to win this jersey today and to be able to wear it in Germany tomorrow. VN: Are you going to defend it? FW: As long as I possibly can
VN: What drove you to stick out your attack for so long?
FW: I caught up with a group only 500 meters before the first GPM. In the downhill only Robbie McEwen was able to keep up with me. At the bottom he said goodbye and told me that it would be suicidal for him to go with me. Then I took the second GPM and after the second descent I had a seven-minute lead. By then I figured that I just had to keep going.
VN: Did you think you might win the stage? FW: No. After 150 km on your own you can’t ride faster than 40 km/h anymore. And the sprinter teams were coming from behind with over 50 k.
VN: Will you have to pay for this in the next few days?
FW: I am afraid so. VN: Did Lance Armstrong congratulate you? FW: No but Tom Boonen came up to our team car to shake my hand. VN: Will you spend the night in the jersey? FW: No, but it will be by my bedside and I’ll hold on to it with one hand.