Prior to the 2017 Österreich-Rundfahrt | Tour of Austria, Tyrol native Stefan Denifl wrote a fantastic blog post about his memories of first competing as a junior in the race 10 years ago, his experiences in the intervening years and his hopes for 2017.
Then, he only went and won it. We catch up with him again to see how he’s feeling now.
Before I started the 2017 Tour of Austria I wrote about how much it meant to me to be participating in the race, exactly 10 years after I had competed for the first time. To have actually won the race: for me this is huge, it’s something really, really special for lots of different reasons.
Firstly, it’s important to me as an Austrian cyclist. Because the sport isn’t really huge in this country there are maybe two races that people really know – the Tour de France and the Tour of Austria – and for people who don’t follow the sport closely, if you can achieve something in either of these events it’s a really big thing. For the Tour of Austria, every year the local fans and the Austrian media look for somebody to play the ‘local hero’ role, to fill the part of the Austrian athlete who maybe has the potential of winning. On a few different occasions that’s been me and sometimes in the past it’s been really disappointing and frustrating to not have been able to deliver for the fans, and repay the interest. This year, the overwhelming feeling for me after finishing the final stage was of relief. Relief, and satisfaction – that after so many years of working so hard, everything finally came together. It’s better than I can describe to have taken this win in my home country.
To have my first pro win in my back pocket – for me it feels like a huge weight has been lifted, and the fact that it is my home race makes it especially meaningful. I didn’t want to look back at my career and be disappointed at not having won a big race. It’s also hugely important for my family who were all there to cheer me on, but who also have supported my career over the years, through times that were difficult. My dad (Ernst Denifl, who competed as a mountain biker in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games) is the reason I am cycling and he has been with me for 15 years. It was amazing to have him at the race and he was just over the moon for me. He even got his own yellow jersey from the race organisers! My girlfriend Melanie was also there. We are expecting our first baby on July 25th and for her to be able to share this with me, and for me to have done it before welcoming our first child, is so, so special.
My entire family were there to support me in Wels and of course we celebrated together with some beers after the finish line! It was hard for them to organise something because there was always the chance that I would crash or lose the jersey on the last stage. After we had some beers we went back to my home town and had a small party with some pizza. I ordered the most calorific pizza possible and drank far too much wine. I had a hangover Sunday for sure… but a nice hangover. It was amazing to see all the messages of support from friends and on social media and I am still trying to write back to everyone who sent congratulations.
I always had it in my mind to win this race and I always knew that the climb up to the Kitzbüheler Horn (on stage 4, where Denifl’s second place behind Astana’s Angel Moreno Lopez saw him move into the race lead) would be crucial. I know this climb so well, I know how hard it is and how steep it is and how you can lose a lot of time. But I also knew how much time could be gained, and it is always the key climb for the overall win. Because it’s steep it suits really light, specialist climbers like Lopez who is about 57/58kg. At the bottom of the climb I had a small gap on the group but it was hectic. Lopez had had a team member helping him and then he just attacked on the bottom and went away. It was a key moment for me. In my head I was like “should I move now?” But I had to play it cool. “Stefan,” I told myself, “you can win this race. Just keep your own rhythm and your own pace.”
I used a lighter gear on this climb and just really focused on pacing myself up it and trying to keep my power output consistent. If you are second in a stage of course you are thinking of a stage win but I resisted the temptation to chase down Lopez. When you are riding strongly like that it’s easy to overstretch yourself and blow up, and then you are just swallowed. I had to keep my cool and not go with him. I kept it steady and stayed focused on GC. I had to believe in myself and in the decisions I was making. In the end it was perfect, we climbed at the same speed for the whole climb and I was in yellow.
I was so happy to be in that jersey. I wanted to keep it so badly.
The next two stages were hard, it wasn’t just a rolling ride to the finish. The queen stage with the Glockner climb (at 3,797m, the Großglockner is Austria’s highest peak) came the next day, and the final day was a hard one with 200km to the finish and some crosswinds. In a situation like that everybody is watching the yellow, waiting for that five or 10 minutes where you make a bad decision and are suffering, and they can attack. I knew it was going to be hard to defend – cycling is a team sport and the boys were working really hard but we had some bad luck with illness, and the Glockner really split the peloton up. But it was the same for all teams: you can’t just have a team of climbers. I ended up out there on my own for some of the final stages but I was happy to find that a lot of the Austrian riders weren’t riding against me, and some even offered support. They also wanted to see me keep the jersey, and after 10 years as a pro rider this made me really proud, that I felt my friends and countrymen were behind me.
This was the first time I have ever defended the yellow, and I was nervous. I really wanted to keep it. I didn’t relax at all, I didn’t allow myself to think that I had won, until we were after the 3km mark on the final stage.
I wanted to have this jersey.
Now that everything is over it will be great to have some time off the bike, to get some rest for the body and the mind. The next big thing is the baby, and will be at home for July getting ready for the new arrival. I’m super happy to be at home for the birth of our first child. After that the next big goal for the team is of course La Vuelta a España. For this race I am thinking more in terms of the team than my own goals. As a first-year pro conti team to have secured an invite to a Grand Tour is incredible, so we are focused on preparing for that. Everybody will need to step up to the plate, La Vuelta is a hard race and we are all aware of the challenge that faces us. Our primary goals are to compete and to be visible, but I feel I will be in condition and I will be watching for opportunities to challenge for a stage win.
But for now, I can look back with happiness at the Tour of Austria, and take some time to get ready to be a dad.