Man of the Flatlands, the multi talented Greg Van Avermaet (BMC & Belgium) pulls off a splendid ‘double’ on the first day of climbing; solo in the grand manner he wins the stage and takes the yellow jersey – and by the considerable margin of 05:11 on Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx & France) who remains second and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar & Spain) who’s in third spot.
All the favourites finish where we’d expect them to be albeit Alberto Contador loses 33 seconds as he’s tailed off in the last K – those war wounds still affecting him.
The pundits are saying it’s over for Contador; they have short memories, this is a man who never gives up – VeloVeritas states that categorically; ‘Alberto will be back!’
No complaints about the quality of the racing today, then – but some questionable tactics from Movistar…
As yesterday, the first move to stick went 30 minutes in: nine riders went away – Cyril Gautier (AG2R-La Mondiale), Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Bartosz Huzarski (Bora-Argon 18), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Romain Sicard (Direct Energie), Florian Vachon (Fortuneo-Vital Concept).
But not before polka dotted Trek chocolatier (his uncle and he have a chocolate shop, ed.), Jasper Stuyven nabbed the points on the early fourth cat. Côte de Saint-Léonard-du-Noblat.
The gap grew in a straight line on the graph paper zooming upwards; but Grivko, Van Avermaet, and De Gendt were greedy and wanted that time to themselves, accelerated away and by the first third cat. Côte de Puy Saint-Mary at 142 K covered – taken by De Gendt – they had 12 minutes on the peloton.
Majka, Pauwels, Gautier, Huzarski, Vachon and Sicard meanwhile were sliding slowly backwards but still had 10 minutes and more on the peloton.
The end game begins at 40 K to go with the summit of the cat. 3 Col de Neronne – which is followed by two cat. 2’s and a final cat. 3.
On the approach to the Neronne it was Sky’s very own Terminator, Vasil Kiryienka the reigning World Time Trial Champion who was given the mission and began to chip those seconds back but De Gendt, Van Avermaet and Grivko were spelling nicely with the carrot for De Gendt being Stuyven’s polka dot jersey and for Van Avermaet the biggest prize of all – Sagan’s maillot jaune.
The gap dips below 13 minutes now but it should be enough for the three to survive with 45 K still to ride.
De Gendt takes the points on the Neronne; that was always going to be the way of it – Movistar on point now with the gap closer to 11 than 12 minutes and the casualties mounting at the rear with each 100 metres covered.
Next up is the Puy Mary and it’s plane crash stuff now in the peloton as Movistar turn the screw with the lead under nine minutes as Grivko pops from the break under De Gendt’s forcing – this is a real hill battle; no complaints about ‘sportivs’ today.
Cav’s long gone and now Sagan pops, Nibali eases up – no wonder, Movistar are frenzying.
De Gendt takes the points on the Puy Mary but it’s Van Avermaet who drops like a depth charge off the summit.
Pinot doesn’t look ‘easy’ in the peloton as Movistar continue to inflict the pain.
Sky is present in strength at the top with both of BMC’s ‘contenders’ – Porte and van Garderen – there, as is Contador.
The two leaders have seven minutes at the top.
Sagan meanwhile smiles to the fans on the climb – what a boy!
Van Avermaet kicks and goes solo; death or glory for the man who’s season was compromised by that crash back in the spring – maybe the enforced rest did him good?
Behind it’s the ‘men all over the hill’ of cliché – for sure the ‘phoney war’ is over…
Van Avermaet dances upwards, he only needs to hang on to 19 seconds of his six minutes to be in yellow at the end.
Alaphilippe is hanging tough with the ‘Bigs’ group but looking anything but comfortable as Sky now turn it on – Nieve and Thomas drive.
Froome is still there – obviously; Porte, van Garderen, Quintana, Valverde, Aru, Martin, Kreuziger, Contador, Pinot, Kelderman, Yates, Bardet, Barguil, Rodriguez – the cream has risen today…
Van Avermaet is over the top, just one climb to go for him – it looks like joy and jaune for GVA as he dives under the 10 K banner.
He’s on the valley road with 5:44 to spare and 7.4 K to ride including the Col de Font de Cère, which isn’t too savage after the two cols he’s just tackled – and he’s on the hill now.
Sky still ride tempo on the front but it’s not a killing pace and GVA has actually stretched his lead to six minutes.
Four K to go for the BMC man, De Gendt is in no man’s land but is riding steadily up towards more K of M points and the polka dot jersey, tomorrow – no panic from him and not a bad day’s work.
Van Avermaet tops the climb as Sky drive on; you have to question Movistar today – why drive like they did and burn the team up?
Van Avermaet is in the steep finish straight, he rises from the saddle, sprints, drives for the line, punches the air back to the team car, he’s ecstatic, arms high, punching the air – beautiful to see.
GVA/BMC the stage and yellow; a great day for the Belgian ‘Classics Specialist’ – who just happened to win Tirreno this year – and his BMC team.
Bardet attacks late from the leaders’ group, trying to pinch some seconds.
De Gendt finishes now for second spot and it should be ‘poids’ for him on the podium.
There’s the red kite for the lead group with Contador just off the back – still suffering from those early two crashes.
Majka finishes third, he’ll have garnered a few points in the K of M today – but amigo Contador loses a little time today.
A good day of racing at last and a great, classy winner – no complaints from VeloVeritas.
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