While the Tourmalet stage of the Vuelta a España didn’t go the way that anyone was expecting for Remco Evenepoel, the Belgian’s young compatriot Cian Uijtdebroeks served up a performance that highlighted why so many believe that the 20-year-old Bora-Hansgrohe rider is a Grand Tour winner in the making. Uijtdebroeks finished fifth on the stage, right on the wheel of fellow 20-year-old Juan Ayuso, the pair of them on the heels of the untouchable Jumbo-Visma trio of stage winner Jonas Vingegaard, race leader Sepp Kuss and three-time Vuelta champion Primož Roglič.
It was the stand-out ride of Uijtdebroeks’ budding professional career, which is now into its second season with his German team, and lifted him five places up the overall classification to ninth. It came despite him being affected by illness in recent weeks and being hampered by a persistent saddle sore during the Vuelta, the discomfort so intense from that most tormenting of cycling injuries that he was forced to stand on the pedals while climbing the Col d’Aubisque, the first of the big ascents on Friday’s 13th stage.
Uijtdebroeks was the winner of last year’s Tour de l’Avenir, which has long been a gauge of upcoming talent. Yet, after every edition of this under-23 race it’s always hard to gauge the level of the talent on display. Some years the vintage is great, such as in 2018 when Tadej Pogačar beat Thymen Arensman, Gino Mäder and Aleksandr Vlasov. The following edition won by Tobias Foss ahead of Giovanni Aleotti wasn’t as impressive, however.
Based on what we’ve seen at the Vuelta, the 2022 Tour de l’Avenir may well be in the same class as that edition won by Pogačar. Among the riders beaten by Uijtdebroeks were Frenchman Lenny Martinez and Italian Lorenzo Milesi, who have both worn the leader’s red jersey.
The young Belgian was head and shoulders above that pair and everyone else in that Tour de l’Avenir in that race and has looked it throughout this season. The Vuelta is his fourth WorldTour stage race of the year after the Tours of Catalunya, Romandie and Switzerland. After finishing in the top 10 at each of those three, Uijtdebroeks is on course to emulate that achievement in Spain, especially as the race will now remain in the bigger mountains where he feels most at home.
He’d gone into the Tourmalet stage optimistic about his chances of moving up from 14th place overall into the top 10. “We’ve climbed quite a few cols but this will be different because we’ll be going above 2,000 metres in altitude. I love it when the cols come one after another like this. I hope there’ll be some gaps and that I’ll be able to climb a few places,” he said going into the stage.
Coming out of it, the Bora rider, who always seems to have a smile on his face, was delighted with how the day had gone. “This stage really suited me quite well on paper due to the sheer amount of climbing. I’m not so punchy, so punchier stages don’t fit so well to my style, but this was different,” he said.
“I battled again with saddle soreness. But I was able to focus on the race and get through the pain. On the final climb, I just tried to follow as long as possible. I attempted to follow when Vingegaard went, but it wasn’t an option in the end and I kept a good pace. Overall, this stage was tough on the legs, but I was feeling very good mentally. I want to continue to fight, and hopefully achieve a top ten overall. It’s my first Grand Tour and it’s been a good learning process so far.”
Asked about how the saddle sore had affected him, Uijtdebroeks confessed that he’d suffered on the Aubisque. “I couldn’t sit on my saddle for a while. But I told myself: ‘Focus on the race, forget about the pain.’ On the Tourmalet, I set my mind to zero and tried to follow as long as possible.”
That is likely to be his plan for Saturday’s second big Pyrenean stage and for the big days in the mountains of northern Spain during the final week, when Cian Uijtdebroeks’ standing looks set to rise even higher.
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