Jake Stewart is composed, but his frustration is evident. “I was going really well, and then I had the incident with Bouhanni, spent a few week at home unable to ride, and then, yeah, I just really struggled to find the level required in the peloton again.”
The Briton is referring back to the Cholet-Pays de la Loire race in March when, in a sprint to the line, French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni pushed Stewart into the crash barriers. He thankfully stayed upright, but fractured his third metacarpal in his hand.
The fallout made headlines: Stewart fought back on Twitter, and some social media users subsequently racially abused Bouhanni. It was a nasty affair that doesn’t need to be breached again right now.
But it left its mark on Stewart who in the weeks earlier had begun to make his name for himself, finishing fourth on GC at Etoile de Bessèges and then claiming an unfancied second place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the traditional season-opener.
“Partly down to the incident, my confidence was knocked a bit, but more than anything it was the physical loss,” the Groupama-FDJ rider tells Cycling Weekly. “It was the week before Flanders, a huge goal for me and the team, especially with my form being good. It was mentally a big hit to realise that with broken bones I couldn’t race for a few weeks. I couldn’t ride on the road properly because of the vibrations through my hands.”
He returned to racing at the Tour de Romandie four weeks after, but one of the spring’s surprise acts didn’t really pick up where he left off. He continues: “Physically, I felt like I lost my place in the peloton. I went to Romandie and the Tour de Suisse and a lot of those guys were using those races as Tour prep.
"It was hard racing, and I hadn’t put in the hours on the bike due to the injury. I hadn't been to altitude, and I really struggled to find my legs in the mountains. Usually I climb well for five to 10 minutes, but there I was suffering. After Suisse I took some time off racing to find myself, get back into the rhythm.”
Stewart isn’t the first and won’t be the last rider to see a sustained drop in form post-injury. But this young in his professional career, with excitement having built around him, it stung. A measured but fast talker, Stewart is hungry to catch the peloton unaware again, as soon as the 2022 race flag drops.
“I proved in Bessèges, at Nokere [Koerse, 6th], Koksijde [12th], Omloop - these were top-10s and top-fives at WorldTour races or against WorldTour opposition who I am,” he states.
“I’m eager to consolidate that, prove it wasn’t a one-off, a fluke. It’s easy to say it was beginner’s luck as a neo-pro, but it was what I was capable of. I want to repeat those results and improve on them.
“Considering the tail end of the season I had, a lot of people have maybe forgotten about Omloop, and who I am, really.
“The peloton won’t be concerned about me when I wasn’t that much of a threat in the Classic-style races on the road towards the end of the season. By no means am I going to be stalked by everyone else, like [team-mate Stefan] Küng is if he jumps off the front with 20km to go.”
But, of course, that’s not Stewart’s style. He’s punchy, he’s aggressive; he’s built for races like Omloop. “I’m not going to be riding solo,” he explains, “but I need to make sure I’m in that front split the whole race. I believe in myself for a small bunch kick. I’m a sprinter from a surviving group.”
Only 22, Stewart has always possessed an assured confidence that doesn’t stray into arrogance. His team share this, extending his contract to 2024. “That’s their belief and trust in me,” he says. “They have realised what bike rider I am, and how I want to develop, and how they want to progress me in the future. And that’s to help me win these bike races.
“The plan this season wasn’t to be a leader per se, but after Omloop they gave me leadership roles where the only option in the team was to go for me.
“Next year [in the Classics] there’ll be me, [Arnaud] Démare and Küng. I’ll be one of the cards to play in the final. I’m not the sole leader at FDJ, but the team trust me with leading, and they want to develop that in me. I’m still so young and it shows what they think of me as a bike rider.”
There’s no-one doubting Stewart’s potential, least of all him. His former British Cycling coach Stuart Blunt recently singled him out as a potential future road world champion, alongside his fellow age-group peers like Tom Pidcock and Ethan Hayter.
“I’d certainly buy into that thinking, I think we are capable of winning a world title,” he notes. “[Matt] Walls and Hayter have proven it this year, Fred [Wright] and I are knocking on the doors at WorldTour races.
“In the next 10 years it’s certainly possible one of us could win the Worlds. We’ve already got the relationships with each other nailed, and we’re all growing into a well-knitted group.
“You call the Kennaugh, Thomas, Cav and Wiggins lot, with Rod [Ellingworth] as coach, the golden generation. I think you can label us boys that as well. We’re all capable of winning a world title.”
The form took a knock, but the confidence never did.
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