It was difficult to pick a neutral favourite to win stage nine of the Tour de France. Heading into the final kilometre, on the climb to Châtel Portes du Soleil, Bob Jungels (AG2R Citroën) led, a man who has come back from a serious arterial problem to the top level of the sport. Behind him, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), chased on, aiming for his first Tour stage win since 2019.
Every morning, it is clear that Pinot is one of the most popular men in the peloton, if the cheers of French fans are anything to go by. Jungels, meanwhile, is a man who has looked a shadow of his former self the past two years, thanks to his arterial condition, but has now returned to the top.
Alan Partridge's first, sadly fictional, autobiography Bouncing Back told the story of the radio DJ's departure from the BBC and battle with depression, but was pulped due to selling poorly. The book could be about either Pinot or Jungels, and one imagines their stories would do rather better than Partridge's. Needless to say, both will have the last laugh.
Sadly for neutrals, there could be only one winner on Sunday, and it was the Luxembourger Jungels, who held off the chasers. Pinot, meanwhile, had to settle for fourth. He'll be back challenging for stages at this Tour de France.
"You never believe it until it happen," the AG2R rider said in his post-stage press conference. "It was a very hard finish up here. To be honest, even just now I’m not thinking about much. It’s such a relief of many frustrating months and years coming down and I’m just happy now"
It has been a tough time for the 29-year-old over the last few years. This is his second year with AG2R, but his first win for the team that wasn't a Luxembourg national title. In fact, it is his first win that isn't a national title since 2019.
The lack of success can be explained, however. After a lot of investigations, he was diagnosed with arterial endofibrosis, a rare condition that reduces blood flow to the legs.
"I had arterial endofibrosis diagnoses last year, which is like a tissue in the arteries and the hip region, which prevented the blood from flowing into my legs at high efforts," Jungels explained. "It’s not something that’s painful but it is something that comes when you go above threshold and that’s why it was so hard to diagnose. It took a couple of years before could diagnose what was happening. I had two surgeries and then it took a year to recover to be sitting here. "
The rollercoaster he has been on was a long old ride - it is over four years since his last WorldTour win, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2018, which was expected to herald great things for the Luxembourger.
Earlier, in 2017, he wore the maglia rosa at the Giro d'Italia, the same Grand Tour that he also won a stage; there was a thought that he was the next great hope of Luxembourg cycling, the heir to the the Schlecks and Charly Gaul maybe. However, that great hope disappeared, so it is warming to see the return.
"For sure, it was very tough the last two or three years," Jungels said. "Last year, we finally found the source of the problem and I had a surgery. With a lot of motivation, I started this season hoping I would be right away back at my level, which absolutely didn’t happen. It just took a long time to recover, we believed at some points in the beginning of the year that I wasn’t going to make it back to that level.
"Since a couple of weeks, I am very grateful that I have faith in myself. I’m very happy that I have people that have faith in me. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but it’s nice to be at the top of the rollercoaster again."
There was one more hurdle in the way of this win: Covid. Jungels tested positive for the virus ahead of the start in Copenhagen, but was deemed not to be contagious, so he could start the race. Therefore, he is the first knowingly-positive rider to stay in the race, an interesting title.
"Just waiting for that result, you could see that I could start the race on Friday," he said. "It was very close, I believe, but it was ok. Luckily, I made it and luckily, I’m here...
"I know that I had no symptoms and I was completely healthy, but you never know if your neighbour, who you could infect, also has no problems. I think it’s not up to the riders and this is why we have experts and we have doctors to make these kinds of decisions."
Free from Covid now, free from arterial problems, Jungels looks like he is getting back to his best. Bouncing back.
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