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The Groupama-FDJ rider timed it right in a reduced bunch sprint to open the three-day French to soar to his first win since turning pro in late 2020.
“Everyone has sacrificed so much for me to be here,” Stewart said. “Just to finally get the win, I’ve been chasing it for so long.”
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The 22-year-old is among a fresh crop of up-and-coming British riders, but after some success on the track, he moved to France as an 18-year-old to chasing his road racing dreams.
Rather than come through the British system and land at Ineos Grenadiers like so many of his peers, Stewart learned French and hitched up with the Groupama-FDJ development team in 2019. After two seasons, he was bumped to the WorldTour team in late 2020.
After some close calls and promising results in his first full elite season, including second in the 2021 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, as well as across this season, the stars aligned Tuesday.
Groupama-FDJ helped control a frenetic finale in the opening lumpy stage, and Stewart had a clean shot to the finish line to win for the first time.
“My team did an amazing job. We came here with a plan and we have been saying for so long that the first stage of the Tour de l’Ain was perfect for me,” Stewart said. “Everyone did their job today, everyone did their work. I am just so thankful to everyone from the team and the guys today.
“[Quick-Step] knew they didn’t have much of a chance in the sprint so they tried to go long. It was looking dangerous, but I know my characteristics, I know I can go long in the sprint, so I wasn’t afraid of this. In the end, I got there on the line.”
Major moment after battling with Crohn’s disease
The victory was even more emotional for Stewart after he battled through Crohn’s disease over the winter, resulting in him coming into the 2022 season a bit short of form for the spring classics and early season races.
“Your first victory with the pros, it marks, it has a special flavor,” said sport director Franck Pineau. “This is all the more the case for him because at the start of the year, we did not know what his situation was going to give.
“It’s a special day. We like all the victories, but when we know where Jake went, it’s really nice. We also have a thought for the medical staff who did a lot of work,” Pineau said. “It’s really a team victory today, on all levels, because I also remember that the group was sensational.”
Stewart is set to make his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España starting August 19 in Utrecht.
He is under contract with the French WorldTour team through 2024, and he’s hoping for more wins after the relief and joy of winning Tuesday.
“It just feels like a massive weight off my shoulders. It’s emotional,” Stewart said at the line. “I never expected to be here this week with legs like this.”
“Ta première victoire chez les pros, ça marque, ça a une saveur particulière. On sent aussi que tout le monde est content pour lui. C’est un jour particulier.” Franck Pineau sur le succès de Jake Stewart au Tour de l’Ain.
— Équipe Cycliste Groupama-FDJ (@GroupamaFDJ) August 9, 2022