British first-year pro Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) took the biggest result of his career on Saturday with second place behind Davide Ballerini in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
For Stewart, the result was a continuation of his fine start to the season, and his pedigree for Belgian one-day racing that stretches back to his U23 days.
Stewart was a distant second to Ballerini on Saturday but he navigated a technical finish far better than more established sprinters and made up ground on several riders before the line. Ballerini simply had the better positioning and a far superior lead-out train on the day but Stewart took confidence from his performance, which came after fourth overall in Etoile de Besseges in early February.
“Besseges was a bit of a surprise but when you come to a race with confidence and good legs you usually can pull out a good result. Today was a bit of a surprise but I had good legs in Besseges and carried that into today. I was always prepared for today,” Stewart told Cyclingnews and a small cluster from the media after his second place.
“There was no wind today and it was good weather and that allowed for a big group to come to the finish. It wasn’t as hard as in previous years but I’ve been supported really well in the last two years with the development team at Groupama-FDJ and then I’ve stepped up to being a pro in October. This team is a good place for me and I’ve carried on progressing. I think it will be a good few years with the team.”
“It was hard from the Wolvenberg until the finish. It was about surviving really. I struggled over the Muur but once I was in that group I knew that I just needed to make it to the finish and follow Stefan and Kevin and let them do the work for me. Then I could do the sprint.”
Deceuninck-QuickStep were dominant throughout the race and had an answer at almost every turn but Stewart banked everything on the race coming back together in a sprint. He used his teammates in the finale and even when he lost their wheels in the closing stages he refused to panic. He navigated the final set of corners before exploding from the pack.
“I lost my teammates wheel but found Kevin Geniets again with about 500m to go. He helped me take the wheel of QuickStep and I was coming fast but there wasn’t enough road to take Ballerini. I keep surprising myself and a lot of people this year. No one really expected second place from myself but the team are really supportive and we have a good group here for the Classics. It’s a surprise but it can be expected with from a group like this.”
Stewart has been with the Groupama-FDJ team since 2019 and was second and third in the U23 versions of Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders respectively. At the finish on Saturday the Belgian press asked ‘who is Jake Stewart?’ a question which drew a laugh from the 21-year-old.
“I’m still trying to discover my potential,” he said.
“This is where my heart is and I love the Belgian races. This is well I want to excel. It’s where I want to see a good career. Where weren’t sure where I was going to excel on the road but we’ve found my potential in these harder races. We’ll try and build on it.”