The Fighting Spirit of Stefan de Bod The Lost Boys of the Tour de France: Part 8

When the list of seven riders who finished outside the stage 9 time limit at Tignes was announced, the media rightfully focused on the story of Nic Dlamini, the first Black South African to compete in the Tour de France. After crashing on a descent and battling solo through the wet, freezing conditions in the mountains for several hours, the Qhubeka-Assos team rider refused to quit, arriving in Tignes almost an hour and a half behind Australian stage winner Ben O’Connor. Well ahead of Dlamini, but also outside the time cut, another South African crossed the line after enduring his own painful journey. This was Stefan de Bod, 24, who comes from the small wine-country town of Stellenbosch, 50 kilometers east of Cape Town—where Dlamini grew up in a township.

When de Bod turned pro two years ago with Team Dimension Data, among his teammates were both Dlamini and O’Connor. They raced together for two seasons before the Aussie moved to AG2R-Citroën (where he has established himself as team leader), while the one-year-younger de Bod (a similar rider to O’Connor) was recruited by Astana-Premier Tech. Asked about the South African’s qualities, Astana’s longtime directeur sportif Dmitriy Fofonov said de Bod “is a good rider with a future. He climbs well. He will be a good reinforcement for the leaders…we’ve opted for youngsters as we have to think about the team’s future.”

Stefan de Bod on stage 9 of the 2021 Tour de France. Image: Chris Auld.

Growing up, de Bod got to love cycling after acquiring a hand-me-down bike from his older brother. He soon proved to be one of the best riders in South Africa, winning the national junior road race title; at age 19 he joined Qhubeka’s Italy-based feeder team. After winning the national under-23 time trial championship and the Tour of Good Hope in early 2018, his third year with the squad, he made a stunning breakthrough in Italy that spring, winning two one-day races against the cream of Italy’s U23 racers.

The first victory came in the U23 version of Strade Bianche, a 150-kilometer race featuring 18 sectors of white roads in the Romagna region. De Bod had to battle for his success. “I punctured in the first sector and thought my race was over,” he reported. “I changed the wheel and got back. After 70 kilometers I crashed when guys stopped in front of me. [After] chasing back, I saw there was a group going up the road close to the first GPM. My strength lies in the climbs…so I went across. It was a big effort…. When I got to the break, I saw the guys were not going to ride the pace I wanted to ride. With still 14 gravel sections left, I thought, it’s a single line in the gravel so they’re not going to work together. So, I attacked [with over 60 kilometers to go] and just kept going. I was first over the two GPMs and then I was just going full gas to the finish.”

In second place, more than two and a half minutes back, was Italian standout Alessandro Covi—on his Giro d’Italia debut this year, Covi was second on the “white roads” stage to Montalcino and third on the mountaintop finish at Monta Zoncolan. In the week following his Strade Bianche win, de Bod lined up at the G.P. Palio del Recioto in the foothills of the Alps. This time he broke away on the climbs with one other rider, finishing a minute and a half clear of the first chasers. The rider he outkicked to win the race was a young man named Tadej Pogačar.

Those successes earned de Bod a spot on Qhubeka’s WorldTour team, Dimension Data, in 2019. After winning the Africa Continental TT title in March, he began his neo-pro season riding for Mark Cavendish at the Tour of Turkey; he also completed the challenging Critérium du Dauphiné before riding the seven-day Tour of Austria where, surprising many, he finished third overall in the mountainous stage race ahead of riders such as Aleksandr Vlasov and teammate O’Connor.

Last year, de Bod again showed the fighting spirit that has characterized his career. Stage 3 of February’s UAE Tour finished on the Jebel Hafeet mountain—the stage would be won by Adam Yates from Pogačar. Maybe de Bod would have been with them, but he crashed early in the stage and, he reported, “On the way to the climb I was really struggling. I couldn’t hold my handlebars and could barely brake.” [He later found out he had fractured his scaphoid.] “On the climb, the adrenaline set in and I felt good until the finish.” He placed a remarkable 15th just behind his team leader Domenico Pozzovivo.

The 2020 season ended with de Bod riding his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España. He finished the race third best of his NTT Pro Cycling team, 94th overall among the 142 finishers. On his return to South Africa, he told a local website, “The last two weeks of the Vuelta were tough and fast. I think a grand tour changes you. To suffer every day gives you more depth in the future. It’s no secret that I was far from my best this year…but I look forward to showing what I can do next season.”

With his new team, Astana-Premier Tech, he finished all five of his pre-Tour stage races this year, including fifth place at the Tour of Hungary. At the Tour, de Bod was in the top half of the GC going into stage 8, the first in the Alps. “I was feeling good from the start today,” he wrote later on Instagram. “After the first Cat. 1 climb [Mont Saxonnex], two guys slipped and crashed in front of me on the descent.” De Bod hit the sliding bikes and landed heavily on his chest, ending up in a driveway. As he was treated by medics, a spectator fetched a cushion to put under his head. He said he couldn’t breathe for a couple of minutes, and he left leg went “completely numb” when he was helped to his feet. But he was able to continue and completed the stage a half hour behind the winner. De Bod knew stage 9 was going to be a struggle, and it was. “When he reached the finish on his own in Tignes, exhausted, his first words were: “Did I make it?” The answer was “no.” He was outside the time limit. “I gave it everything but my body did not respond from the beginning,” he later wrote. “A childhood dream disappeared when I crossed the line today.”

THE TOUR’S LOST BOYS

The Tour’s Lost Boys: Following the 19 who dropped out before the rest day in Tignes, Jonas Koch of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert did not start stage 10  because of sickness. On stage 11, seven riders abandoned the race: Tiesj Benoot of Team DSM (suffering from crashes earlier in the race); Victor Campenaerts of Qhubeka-NextHash (fatigue); Tony Martin of Jumbo-Visma (concussion after crashing 30km into the stage); Dan McLay (fatigue) and Clément Russo (back pain from earlier broken rib), both of Arkéa-Samsic; Miles Scotson of Groupama-FDJ (sickness and heatstroke); and Tosh Van der Sande of Lotto-Soudal (fatigue). And Luke Rowe of INEOS Grenadiers (fatigue) finished six minutes outside the time limit. So, prior to stage 12 the Tour’s 184-strong starting field had been reduced to 156.

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