After starting 2022 off questioning his whole career, Jake Stewart won his first professional bike race on Tuesday, outsprinting the field to win stage one of the Tour de l'Ain.
The Groupama-FDJ rider said the result was a "long time coming" and has taken a "big weight off the shoulders, it means a lot".
The 22-year-old has threatened big things before, most notably his second place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the beginning of 2021, but struggled with intestinal problems at the beginning of the year, which threatened to derail his career.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly shortly after his victory in Val-Revermont, at the beginning of the three-stage Tour de l'Ain, Stewart pointed out that it was not only his first pro win, but his first international win at any level too.
"It's a long time coming, I've been chasing this win for so long," he explained. "I was always putting pressure on myself to perform, to get that win. It's a big weight off the shoulders, it means a lot.
"It makes it more special from the start of this year, from when I was ill or whatever. I questioned my whole career, whether it would be possible to come back to the same level. I was going well into the Tour de Suisse and then had Covid as well, so it has been a pretty sh** year to begin with. It definitely makes the win a bit sweeter, after a tough year like this."
Stewart's Groupama-FDJ team had a hard time controlling the stage for a sprint, with attacks coming mostly from Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl; Julian Alaphilippe had a go, before Remi Cavagna tried to disrupt the planned sprint with a late attack.
However, the lone escapee was brought back in time for a bunch sprint, and Stewart's chance at glory.
It has been a target for a while, since 2020 even: "We said, even from a while ago, the first stage at Tour de l'Ain it really suits me," he said. "We knew I was probably one of the fastest."
However, it has been a long road to this point. After his breakthrough result at Omloop last February, which also followed a fourth place on GC at Etoile de Bessèges, there were big expectations. However, a collision with the barriers at Cholet-Pays de la Loire in March - caused by Nacer Bouhanni - saw him break a bone in his hand, stalling his promising start to WorldTour life.
Stewart then had a delayed start to this season after being diagnosed with Crohn's disease, but has since bounced back. He came close to breaking his duck with third place on a stage and overall at the Four Days of Dunkerque, before coming third at the Grand Prix du Morbihan too. Winning finally means a lot to the man from the Midlands.
"When you chasing something for so long, you start to become a bit desperate," he said on Tuesday evening. "You're always putting the pressure on, you just want it a bit too much. It definitely takes the takes that pressure away, and lifts the weight off your shoulders. Everyone has always said, once you've got that first win, you've got the confidence and you go from there. It puts my mind at ease a bit more, and I can carry on working from here."
The young Groupama rider was clearly emotional in the interviews he gave after the finish line, and had a lot of people to thank..
"There are so many people to thank, everyone knows who they are," he said. "From my time as a junior with Robin Fox at Solihull CC, up through to Stuart Blunt and Keith Lambert as a junior and u23. Then all my family, friends, and Georgia. They've been there through thick and thin, always been there to support me, and have sacrificed so much for me to live my dream. It means a lot."
As for the next two days, Stewart will be looking to pay back his teammates for their efforts today. While he might be in the leader's jersey tomorrow, the mountainous two stages are not for him.
"We get through these next two days, there's no opportunities now, it's for the climbers," he said. The boys worked real hard for me today so I'll do what I can for them in the mountains. We have two pretty good GC hopes, so I'll be there to support them. Then it's also two good days of preparation working for the Vuelta a España, then we go from there."
Now he has his first win, Stewart might just be one to watch out for at the Vuelta next week.
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