He’s known for being withdrawn, distant in speaking to to reporters, but Bjarne Riis was effusive at the finish of stage fourteen in Risoul. Approximately 30 minutes earlier Rafal Majka had won the Tour’s second Alpine stage, going clear early on and holding off a hard-chasing Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Ag2r La Mondiale’s Jean Christophe Peraud.
The stage win was less than the team had hoped for at the beginning of the Tour, yet was the most important thing at this point of the race. Tinkoff Saxo’s general classification hope Alberto Contador crashed out days ago with a fractured tibia, and since then the focus has turned to salvaging the team’s campaign.
With no other rider in overall contention, that meant one thing: a stage win, and preferably in the mountains. Nothing else would do. It became the major target for Riis’s squad.
In achieving that goal, Majka relieved the pressure, gained vital TV and press exposure and, not insignificantly, gave his team manager something to smile about.
The Dane beamed as a considered what had been achieved. “I think he is a happy little b**ard right now,” he laughed. “He is fantastic. That was a big number today, a really great victory.
“He has been sitting out there the whole day, pulling in the wind and everything, and still able to have 35 seconds at the bottom and keep it until the finish…that is something big.”
The mood at the team bus and vehicles was in clear contrast to the solemn air surrounding the team after Contador withdrew. The Spaniard had based his whole season around trying to win another Tour, but crashing hard on stage ten and fracturing his tibia put an immediate end to that plan.
It was, said Riis, something which necessitated reinvention. “If your GC rider is out, then you need to aim for new things. I think we had to do that, to be honest. The way that kept the motivation and morale high was just great.”
Majka’s win saw team staff shake hands, clap backs and shout jubilantly; Russian owner Oleg Tinkoff cried tears of relief and joy on French television. “We needed this win. We deserved this win…it is emotional,” he said, as the waterworks started and he put on shades to mask them.
It was a moving day.
Majka’s success was based largely in making it into the first big selection of the day, a 17 man cluster which slipped away 16 kilometres after the start.
This group built a maximum lead of just over five minutes, but this had been hacked down to just one minute by the foot of the final climb. It was a crucial moment for Majka, who was feeling good. He knew it was all or nothing.
First to forget ahead was the Italian Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale), but Majka caught and passed him and drilled it to the summit. Nibali and Peraud set off in pursuit but the young Pole had enough left in the tank to fend off their pursuit and reach the line 24 seconds clear. The win was his, the biggest of his career.
“We knew that yesterday, today was probably our best card,” said Riis, talking about the game plan. “His condition is coming and it is great.”
Unsurprisingly, the 24 year old was very content with what he had achieved. He explained that it was a significant milestone for him. “This is my first pro victory. I was always coming second, third, etc,” he stated. “I needed to win some big stage at the Tour de France.”
It was rumoured before the race that he was frustrated with being asked to ride the Tour after competing in the Giro, a theory which was fuelled by an apparent Facebook post by him stating words to that effect. He denied that was the case today.
“The assertion that I didn’t want to ride the Tour de France is not a true story. Bjarne Riis and my directeur sportif Fabrizio Guidi told me: ‘You’ll do the Tour but you’ll take it easy in the first week.’
“The plan was to help Alberto Contador in the mountains but we had bad luck. Since his accident, we try to win a stage. It’s also wrong to think that I’m doing the Tour because Roman Kreuziger isn’t. Had he been able to start, we would have both been part of the team.”
Majka has finished seventh and sixth in the past two editions of the Giro d’Italia, and is riding his debut Tour. While he lost time in the opening week, his second place on stage 13 and winning ride one day later illustrate his talent; according to Riis, the 24 year old should have a big future.
“He is still very young. He needs some kind of experience, but it is coming,” he said. “In a race like this I think he learns a lot about everything.
“He has been riding with Alberto and the other guys and to go here and win – you learn a hell of a lot. You see ups and downs and that is what you need as a mature pro. He is still a kid.”
Another couple of years, and he could well be fighting for general classification in the race.
Right now, though, on this fourteenth stage of the Tour, he’s done enough to make his team manager and its owner two very happy men indeed.