From coma to Giro d’Italia stage winner: Dries De Bondt is a comeback story for the ages

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This article originally appeared on Velo News

TREVISO, Italy (VN) -- Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix) wants his surprise stage win at the Giro d'Italia to show that it's important to believe in yourself and never give up.

De Bondt was part of a four-man breakaway that upset the sprinters on what should have been a straightforward day for the bunch in Turin. He then edged out Eduardo Affini (Jumbo-Visma) in the final sprint for the line.

Usually used to working in a domestique role for Mathieu van der Poel, Jasper Philipsen, and Tim Merlier, it was De Bondt's first win since he won the Belgian national championship in October 2020. It was also his first victory at a grand tour.

"I am not the big winner. I am one of the guys in the bunch who is always working," De Bondt said during an animated post-stage press conference. "I’m also happy to do it and I feel very happy when they finish it off.

"But when the fans watch me going to break time again and again and then the people think I’m just going keep going for it and if that they see you winning, they see persistence is the key to success. I think it’s important to believe in yourself and to keep on believing yourself, even if you suffer again and again and it didn’t work out again. If you keep on trying it will work out eventually."

Also read: Giro d'Italia Stage 18: Dries De Bondt wins as breakaway upsets sprinters

De Bondt took some time to make it to his post-stage press conference in a small truck just beyond the finish line. He had the usual protocols that all stage winners had to go through, podium, anti-doping, and the television interviews, but he also wanted to make sure he was there for the fans that had come to watch.

He spent some time signing autographs for fans and taking selfies with them before he arrived for his press conference, and he continued to do it afterward.

For De Bondt, this is a hugely important part of being a professional bike rider. He almost had his dream of a racing career taken from him in 2014 when he hit the front of a house at high-speed when his rear tire blew out and sent him flying.

The crash left him with two fractures in the base of his skull and a swelling on his brain. He was in a coma for two weeks and doctors didn't expect him to make a full recovery.

"I live a dream and I am aware of it. My dream once was almost shattered to pieces before I was pro cyclist and the fact that I became pro after that made me realize that what a beautiful full job this is," De Bondt said. "When I won my first professional race, Halle-Ingooigem home in 2016, I got lots of messages from people also knowing my story and where I came from and I felt what it was like to be an inspiration for people and also for the fans.

"To them, we are inspiration and I am just really honored to be that and so I think we are an example for them and you have to behave like it and be proud that you can be an inspiration for other people, because that’s what it is and it’s amazing to be capable of doing that."

Surprising the peloton

After several days of raging fights to make it into the breakaway, Thursday's four-man move made it up the road with relative ease. With far more firepower in the bunch behind and sprint teams hungry for another chance after a week in the mountains, it should have been a simple reel in and catch over the final kilometers.

However, with five kilometers to go and around 30 seconds still on the peloton, it was clear that the four leaders would duke it out for the win. It was no fluke, but a well planned out strategy from all of the members of the breakaway.

"You have to take days like this with a plan, because the first thing is you need to be in the break. It’s not an easy job," De Bondt explained. "Once you’re there, you have to start thinking because, you know, a day like this, there were three teams who wanted to make it to a sprint. We knew those teams were going to make it very hard for us, but we also knew we were a group of four guys that, in the sprint teams' opinion, was easy to control. We started to ride slow to be able to accelerate very hard towards the end.

"They got it back to less than a minute to us and the cards were again, gone. But we knew that sprinter teams were not going to catch us because then the race starts all over and maybe a group away goes away that is far harder to control. Our guess was right, and we got a gap again, and without really using too much energy, we got to the steep climb at 50k to go.

"The plan was actually to have a gap on the top of about two, three minutes. And then just without thinking go full to the line. We talked about it with the four guys before the action we did and everybody honored his word, and I really respect that in my fellow breakaway companions today. Nobody skipped a turn and I think that’s the only reason we made it to the finish line today."

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