BRIVES-CHARENSAC, France: Alexis Vuillermoz, a veteran who feared for his life after a crash last season, capped his recovery by winning a frantic sprint on Monday to take the overall lead in the Criterium du Dauphine.
The 34-year-old Frenchman broke a kneecap in 2020 and then crashed badly in the Tour of Switzerland last June.
“A year ago, I fractured my pelvis. The doctors said it was the end of my career. I was even afraid for my life, I ended up in intensive care,” he said at the finish on Monday.
“It’s amazing. After two years of hardship... I could have stopped my career. But despite everything I wanted to come back.”
Vuillermoz started the season strongly, with half-a-dozen top-10 finishes.
“All that was missing was the victory. This is the icing on the cake,” he said.
Vuillermoz was part of a small, early, breakaway in the 170km second stage to Brives-Charensac.
He was not supposed to join the escape, “to save strength for the next stage.”
“But the break went off and I said to myself ‘we’ll see, never mind tomorrow’,” he added.
“That’s the attacking bike racing I like.”
The five riders built a lead of nearly four and a half minutes before nursing their shrinking advantage over the final kilometers.
With the charging peloton closing in, Frenchman Olivier Le Gac of Groupama seemed to catch out the other breakaway riders with an early surge for the line.
But Vuillermoz, riding for TotalEnergies, and Norwegian Anders Skaarseth of Uno-X gave chase and passed inches from the line.
“The sprint was a bit messy,” said Vuillermoz.
“I saw Olivier launch the sprint from very far away at 300 meters, he opened a small gap. I didn’t think I would be able to come back, but I saw that he got stuck a little bit at the 50 meters.”
The long sprint gave the winner an asthma attack.
“But I know how to manage it, you just have to relax.”
Jumbo’s Wout Van Aert led the pack home five seconds behind, but could not save his overall lead.
“I did a good sprint, but it’s a shame to win for sixth place rather than for the win,” said Van Aert.
The first three picked up enough bonus seconds to move to the top of the standings.
The yellow jersey is “a kid’s dream” said Vuillermoz.
He is three seconds ahead of Skaarseth, four ahead of Le Gac and five clear of Belgian star Van Aert.
“The breakaway played it smart, hats off to them,” said Van Aert.
Vuillermoz took the ninth win of a career that includes a 2015 Tour de France stage victory on the Mur de Bretagne.
Tuesday’s 169-kilometer-long third stage is a hilly ride from Saint-Paulien to Chastreix-Sancy in central France.
“I have never worn a distinctive jersey before, it will be a very nice day,” said Vuillermoz. “I think it will be hard to keep it after today’s efforts but I’m going to fight, I’m not going to give up.”