While Adam Yates was taking second place overall at the UAE Tour, a different runner-up on Opening Weekend in Belgium delighted British fans as another star for the future revealed himself to the wider world.
Starting further back than he would have liked in the dash for the line, Groupama-FDJ’s Jake Stewart quickly made his way through to the front, passing the likes of Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation) to take second behind Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s Davide Ballerini.
“It probably wasn’t as hard as it has been in previous years, with the wind and whatnot,” Stewart told Cycling Weekly of the 2021 edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “It was a bit more chilled and then it kind of kicked off after the Wolvenberg and from there it was pretty much full gas for the last 50km.”
Stewart’s job was to position Groupama’s Classics specialist Stefan Küng as well as Kevin Geniets for the climbs, and then just try and hang on himself.
“I tried to position Küng and Geniets before the Wolvenberg and then kind of survived over the Wolvenberg…from there I was just trying to survive and I really suffered on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Once I got over that it was just about trying to save our matches for the finish.”
While Stewart says he unfortunately lost the wheels of Küng and Geniets as they tried to deliver him to the finish, it could have been worse, as his young compatriot Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers) crashed on the run-in, unable to contest the sprint.
“In the end, I was just trying to follow Stefan and Geniets in the finish. I lost their wheel a kilometre and a half to go and then picked up Geniets again with about 500 meters to go,” Stewart explained. “Then from there I could just launch the sprint.”
From the overhead replay, Stewart looked to have been matching Ballerini’s pace and could have maybe challenged for the top step of the podium had his positioning been better. The 21-year-old is understandably chuffed with his second-place despite knowing he could have gone one better.
“I was coming fast at Ballerini in the end, but there wasn’t enough road for me to close the gap on him,” Stewart said. “So certainly if I’d been slightly better positioned into that final corner behind Ballerini then I would have maybe been able to push him to the line a bit more.
“But that’s bike racing, it’s all about positioning and in a finish like that if you’re a little bit too far back with those two corners it’s hard to make up space.”
Stewart has the confidence needed to compete for these big wins, and will now look to build on this experience.
“I know I’ve got a fast sprint anyway and once we got over the Bosberg I recovered pretty well and I was feeling decent and I had the confidence in myself for the sprint,” Stewart said. “I know I’m fast, it’s just having the confidence to follow Geniets and Stefan and get them to place you well and see where we end up in the sprint.
“I think I’ve proven myself this weekend. So hopefully I’ll be able to do a full Classics campaign [this year]. I rode Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders at the end of last year when they were moved to October and I went pretty well at Gent and then had some stomach problems, the whole team did, before Flanders. In the end, we weren’t really able to race because we were just suffering. For sure, there are plenty of learning experiences to come.”