Cycling legend and TV commentator Sean Kelly led the plaudits as Eden’s Mark Donovan claimed a fantastic fourth placed stage finish on his Grand Tour debut.
Mark, aged 21, from Penruddock, is competing for Team Sunweb in the Vuelta a España, which makes up the Grand Tours along with the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.
And he and Sunweb team mate Michael Storer were in excellent form during Saturday’s 11th stage, as riders tackled a 170km leg which formed the first part of a weekend mountain double-header. This featured over 5,000m of climbing and a difficult “sawtooth” profile.
Mark — a former Keswick School student — and 23-year-old Australian Storer got into a breakaway group of eight riders going over the first climb.
The pace was high and, with three riders in the group well up on Grand Classification (GC), the break was never going to be given much leeway.
The chasing peloton, containing the main GC contenders, were led by Team Jumbo Visma looking after the interests of team leader Primoz Roglic.
Over the next 120km the gap hovered at the two-and-a-half to three-minute mark with the breakaway group working well with all contributing to the pace. Two more climbs led to the base of the final climb which topped out at 1,700m. And, with the group already reduced to five riders the pace increased before Marc Soler, of Movistar, and Davide Gaudu, of FDJ, attacked and gained a gap.
Donovan and Storer found bridging that too difficult so they rode hard together, distancing the fifth placed rider and working hard to keep the now-closing peloton at bay.
They went over the finish line together, 52 seconds behind the leader and just six seconds beyond the first rider from the chasing peloton with Storer placed third and Grand Tour debutant Donovan fourth.
“It was incredibly strong from both of those young guys,” Team Sunweb coach Marc Reef said after the stage.
“Mark and Michael did an incredible race. They did everything right in that group to not spend energy and just to be there; it was a really hard day.”
Mark’s dad, Pete, said: “Sunweb had sent a squad of very young riders to the Vuelta with no GC ambitions, but with ambitions to ride aggressively, to seek out breakaways and to learn.
“In a COVID compressed season the three normally well-spaced Grand Tours were shoehorned into August, September and late October/early November.
“With the experienced riders in the team not able to ride multiple Grand Tour events, the young riders were drafted into the Vuelta, when normally a first year pro like Mark — still only 21 — would not be considered.
“For Mark it has been an unbelievable opportunity. To place fourth on a stage exceeds his, and his team’s expectations and it has earned him plaudits from the cycling legend Sean Kelly, commentating on Eurosport.”
Pete spoke of a “phenomenal season” for a Sunweb outfit which came away with four Tour de France stage wins and were second and third on GC at the Giro d’Italia behind British rider and winner Tao Geoghegan-Hart, of Ineos-Grenadiers.
“Sunweb worked hard during lockdown to plan for the late, compressed season that was to come.
“Mark was locked down in Andorra but team meetings at which team tactics were discussed and race scenarios rehearsed prepared the young riders for the restart. The very young team at the Vuelta have managed to not be overawed by the situation and have collectively raced well,” added Pete.
“By the end of the season Mark will have had only 30 days racing when he was scheduled for around 50.
“A seasoned pro will race up to 70. However, he has raced the Dauphine stage race which is usually the dress rehearsal for the Tour de France, and four Belgium one-day classics, including Liege-Bastogne-Liege, so it has been a baptism of fire.”