When the route for this year’s Vuelta a Espana was published in January my heart sank, though not for the reasons you might imagine. This year’s race started in Andalucia – last visited in 2015 – and later visits northern Spain, Asturias and the Basque country, three of my favourite places in Spain. I had to go! Sadly, I knew I couldn’t since it clashed with a family (beloved’s not mine) wedding for which I was making the cake. Instead I’ve had to settle for watching it in its entirety on the television, a poor subsistute for being there in person.
This was brought home yesterday when one of our friends unexpectedly donned the race leader’s jersey. My beloved and I were beside ourselves with joy for him. So few riders ever don the leader’s jersey in a grand tour. Indeed, Rudy Molard is the first rider from his Groupama-FDJ team to wear the leader’s jersey in a grand tour in 13 years. The last being Australian Brad McGee, also in the Vuelta back in 2005. If I recall correctly, the previous French riders to don a leader’s jersey would’ve been Thomas Voeckler in Tour de France 2011 and Sylvain Chavanel in Vuelta a Espana 2011.
Competition to get in and stay in yesterday’s break was fast and furious, particularly since the day before’s stage winner had come from a long-range break. But once the break of 25 riders formed, the peloton seemed content to let them get away. Rudy was the best-placed rider on GC (28th and 3:46 back) to get into the break.
Once the break’s advantage reached over 4 minutes, Rudy became the “virtual race leader.” However, most assumed that Sky or, as on the previous stage, another team would up the tempo to reduce the advantage. But no one, not even Sky seemed to have the appetite for a chase.
Inevitably, the breakmates attacked one another, shattering the group, and a trio of riders finally stayed clear with another threesome, one of whom was Rudy, in hot pursuit. At points Rudy seemed to be flagging as he led the second trio in hot pursuit and, once the leaders started playing cat and mouse, they were in sight. But it was a case of too little, too late. Rudy was riding for the jersey, not the stage win and he succeeded. My beloved and I had been screaming encouragement at the television screen for most of the afternoon, and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones.
The outpouring of love for Rudy on social media was lovely to witness. We also learned that his nickname in the team is Mr Gourmet! Watching him mount the podium, you could see how unaccustomed he was to all the attention and he wasn’t too sure how to react. Finally, you could see he was starting to appreciate just what he’d achieved. Remember, it was only back in the spring that he’d won his first WorldTour race, stage six of Paris-Nice, raced on his adopted-home turf.
Speaking post-race to Eurosport, Rudy said:
A leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour is both beautiful and emotional. It’s a high point in one’s career. I’ll try to make the most of it. I started thinking about it (of the leader’s jersey) only at the end of the stage. I thought about victory, but it was not easy to manage. We were 25 (in the breakaway), there were a lot of attacks, I buried myself for the win. In the end, I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try for the general and we’ll see how it goes.” Even when the peloton crossed the line with a sufficient time gap, I still didn’t really believe it. Let’s see if I can defend the jersey until Sunday, that’ll be good enough.
His team chose yesterday evening to announce that he’d resigned for another two years. They must be delighted to have retained his services particularly as in the post-race interviews he reinterated that his role was still to ride for his team leader. Let’s hope he hangs onto that jersey until Sunday’s difficult, taxing ascent to La Covatilla.
Postscript: Some of Rudy’s advantage was eroded post-race by a 20 second penalty for late feeding!