Some five years ago, a Belgian kid - the next big thing, after his win in the 2008 Tour de l'Avenir - turned pro. As a nation watched, nothing happened. Well, injuries did, as well as close misses, but for the large part of five years Jan Bakelants was invisible, notching up results that were good, but not enough to capture the attention of most.
In 2009, he rode for Topsport Vlaanderen, famous for offering young Belgian talent a place to develop before going to bigger teams. That year, ten seemed to be Bakelants' favorite number for stage races as he placed 10th in Ster Elektrotoer and theTour of Belgium in addition to 11th in the Tour of Wallonie and 9th in the Eneco Tour. If nothing else, the kid had a penchant for racing in the low countries, especially notable in his 7th place at Le Samyn that year. Perhaps even more promise was shown by his second in the GP Triberg-schwarzwald that year, a UCI category 1.1 race that was run in such abysmal weather on a mountainous course that only 20 riders finished. Heinrich Haussler, who would later describe that race as one of the hardest days he ever spent on the bike, won that day with Bakelants a mere five seconds behind, and only four more riders within a minute. It is no surprise, then, that Omega Pharma - Lotto snapped him up for the 2010-2011 seasons.
The start of what should have been a promising career fell short, though, as injuries beseiged Bakelants over the next two years. Hints of talent continued to shine through, though. He rode his first grand tour, the Giro d'Italia, and finished 30th, even after horrendous placings in the two individual time trials (139th and 98th). He finished 6th in the Tour de Wallonie and finished the Vuelta a España. The next year he improved to 22nd in the Giro - and 4th in the young rider classification - and then went on to finish 13th in the Tour de Suisse mere weeks later. In September, he rode another big lap of Spain, finishing 31st in the overall. That was the year the Vuelta included crazed ascent after crazed ascent and Juan Jose Cobo won over Christopher Froome and Bradley Wiggins.
Bakelants was no pure climber, but he had all around strength, as evidenced by his 8th place finish on Old Wilunga Hill in the 2012 Santos Tour Down under. That year, he was riding for RadioShack - Nissan. Progress stalled - he rode the Giro and Vuelta with similar placings, as well as finishing 10th in the Eneco Tour after finishing a mere 10 seconds behind Alessandro Ballan on the stage finishing halfway up the Muur de Geraardsbergen. The low country racing experience evident in his 2009 season briefly flashed again, especially after he finished fourth in the national championship race after being in the decisive breakaway of five riders with eventual winner Tom Boonen. This year, he finished third on a technical and climby circuit behind teammate Stijn Devolder.
But results like this, though promising, fail to impress once a rider is out of his first season or two as a professional. A hard fought third place overall in the Tour of Luxembourg earlier this spring could have turned heads, but could have been just as easily ignored. All that changed on Sunday as Bakelants followed an attack by Sylvain Chavanel that drew six riders clear of the peloton in the closing kilometers of the second stage of the Tour de France. As cooperation died and the peloton thundered ever nearer, Bakelants jumped clear on his own, head on a swivel, never quite believing his gap to the leadout trains behind had not died yet. And then, with 50 meters to go, he realized he would finally get his first victory as a profesional, in the biggest race of the world, and with it take ownership of the maillot jaune for two days.
After today's team time trial, Bakelants has lost his yellow jersey, and his best hope for the race is to make it into a breakaway in the second or third week of the race and use the power and savvy on display three days ago to win again. He may become invisible again, riding the remainder of the race in breakaways that die in the first hour of racing or in a group five or ten minutes behind the overall contenders on the highest cols. But the 27 year old with, uncharacteristically, an engineering degree will not remain invisible for much longer. Breakthrough accomplished.