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The 22-year-old won a stage of the Tour de l’Ain earlier this season and was second last year in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, as well as third overall in this year’s 4 Jours de Dunkerque. However he’s on a bigger stage this time around, riding his first grand tour, and performed with flair on the hilly fifth stage in the Vuelta.
Stewart was part of the day’s break and launched a fine solo attack before the last climb. He opened a gap of 40 seconds and while he was caught and dropped by eventual stage winner Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) before the summit, his was an impressive showing.
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“We knew it was going to be a hard fight to get into the breakaway,” he said after the stage. “I spoke to Fred [Wright] before coming here. He was flying at the Tour and I said, ‘ah, I know which wheel to follow for the good breakaway here.’ In the end I ended up making the breakaway. Fred followed me and we got a good group going.
“In the end I did a good effort into the bottom of the final climb and wanted to get ahead there to try to get over it in the first group. I managed to make it but just cramped up 10km from the finish and from there I was finished.”
Stewart eventually rolled in 12th, 3’30 behind Soler, but would have been much closer had he not had those cramping issues. However he had reason to celebrate as his Groupama-FDJ teammate Rudy Molard finished fourth on the stage and took over as race leader.
He wasn’t initially aware of that and was pleasantly surprised to learn that was the case.
“He got the red jersey? Perfect,” he said. “This was the plan today and we worked hard for it. Once I got there and Rudy was in the break as well, we said we will commit 100 percent to try to get the red jersey. Maybe we could have gone for the stage win with me if I hadn’t worked so hard, but of course the red jersey with Rudy is so much better. It is well deserved today.”
Molard was, as expected, delighted to succeed overnight leader Primož Roglič in the red jersey.
“It is a big day for me,” said the Frenchman. “I was thinking about that from yesterday. I was not so far out of the GC. I told my teammate it was possible to get the red today. I did it, it is so good.
“This red jersey means so much to me. Last year I had to leave the race with a pneumothorax after a massive crash. For nine weeks I couldn’t do any sport. I really struggled, I didn’t know if I could come back to my best level. One year later, I am the leader of the Vuelta. You still have to believe.”
He was very complimentary about Stewart, noting the role he played.
“Jake was so strong today. He pulled for me, but at the end it was very confusing with many attacks,” he said. “He got his chance. He was very strong. In the final I was waiting for him because I know that for the sprint he can win the stage. Soler got the victory, it was good for me for bonification for the red jersey, so I was in the perfect position in the final. I have the red, amazing.”
The big threat to Molard was Bahrain-Victorious rider Wright, who was also in the break and who had started the day just four seconds behind the Frenchman.
“I just had to follow him,” he said of the British rider. “He was very strong. I know he is very fast for the sprint, so I was in doubt for the final sprint. When Nikias Arndt and Impey were coming from the back it was better for me for the sprint. Until the end I was stressed about the red.”
The strong performance by Molard and Stewart brought an additional bonus to Groupama-FDJ. It ended the day jumping seven places to lead the team classification.