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Tour Down Under 2015: stage two – commentary

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Photographs: Regallo, Photo News/Lotto Soudal

The press release might have been despatched more in hope than expectation by Lotto Soudal, the team known more recently as Lotto Belisol.
“Thomas De Gendt will make his début in a Lotto Soudal shirt in Australia,” it declared. “On Sunday 18th January he’ll ride the People’s Choice Classic in Adelaide.”
The world did not hold its breath. The following day’s front pages remained unaltered. A few cycling websites picked it up, but as pebbles in ponds go, this one caused few ripples en route to the bottom.
Thomas De Gendt’s aggressive start to the 2015 Tour Down Under has brought him leadership of the king of the mountains and points competitions after two stages. pic: Regallo
De Gendt is a fine rider, a Grand Tour podium finisher, no less, but after two quiet seasons mired in a contract dispute, his debut in red seemed of greater importance to Lotto Soudal than to the wider world.
Even in his best form, the Belgian would have been an unlikely contender for the People’s Choice Classic, a high octane critierium on a pan-flat circuit punctuated by sprint primes and concluded, typically, with a bunch finish.
De Gendt’s finest hour came, lest we forget, on one of the hardest Giro stages of recent memory. He attacked on the wicked slopes of the Mortirolo and shed his last remaining rivals on the remorseless inclines of the Stelvio to win the queen stage of the 2012 edition. 
The following day, he finished fifth in the individual time trial in Milan, confirming a trend begun a year earlier in Grenoble, when he was fourth in the time trial after claiming sixth place on the Alpe d’Huez. The boy could climb, recover, and time trial. A podium finish confirmed his burgeoning status as Grand Tour contender.
De Gendt rolls out at the start of the 2015 Tour Down Under with Jeremy Roy (FDJ). Both men went on the attack a day later. pic: Offside/L’Equipe
Then? Nothing. Vacansoleil announced its withdrawal from the sport in 2013, plunging the Belgian into a legal battle for his entitlements from the second half of a two-year contract signed in 2012.
A last-minute, one-year deal with Omega Pharma-Quick-Step for 2014 offered hope, if not expectation. De Gendt again performed at his best at the Giro, claiming three top 10 finishes, including fourth on stage 17, but an uninspiring season with Patrick Lefevre’s heavyweights ended with less ceremony even than it had begun – a DNF at Paris-Tours.
Which brings us to the Tour Down Under, fresh starts, and press releases. De Gendt was a constant aggressor on stage two, joining each of the day’s first three attacks and finally riding clear with former winner Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Campbell Flakemore (BMC Racing). De Gendt won both intermediate sprints and claimed the king of the mountains points, before being caught with 25km of the stage remaining. 
All of which prompted us to read Lotto Soudal’s press release more closely. “In stage two, to Stirling, it goes uphill in the final. I can rely on my ultimate jump,” De Gendt had predicted. A voracious peloton did not afford him the opportunity to deploy his ‘ultimate jump’, but it was a fine performance nonetheless – arguably his finest in nearly three years.
De Gendt’s move to Lotto Soudal appears to have imbued him with fresh ambition. pic: Photo News/Lotto Soudal
There are other nuggets of unexpected significance. “The condition feels good,” De Gendt had declared, an unremarkable statement from a rider joining a new team at the start of a new season, but proved accurate by subsequent events.
“The first race of the season is always exciting, just like when I was a teenager, because you want to test the legs in a race. I want to have a good season, also for the team. I don’t set a specific goal for the Tour Down Under. It won’t make or break my season, but of course it would be great to win a stage.”
And finally? “There are several stages that suit me, like the fifth stage with the finish on Willunga Hill.”
We will watch the Belgian with interest on Saturday. It is likely his rivals will, too. The former contender may be regarded as such again. Form is temporary, they say, but class is permenant. De Gendt’s Lotto Soudal shirt, trumpeted in his team’s press release, may serve as a red alert. 

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