Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) unclipped from his bike and sat in the ditch, exhausted, on crossing the finish line atop the Alto do Malhão. He had just been pipped to the stage win by Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and now the sight of a television crew mobbing yellow jersey Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) confirmed that he had just missed out on overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve to boot.
A brace of second places felt a scant reward for his efforts in a breathless final 20 kilometres through the rippling hills of the Serra do Caldeirão.
The Dane had begun the stage 29 seconds off Pogačar’s overall lead but, rather than try to out-strip the Slovenian on the short but sharp final climb, he opted to go on the attack from distance, responding to an initial acceleration from David de la Cruz (Team Sky) on the ascent of Vermelhos.
"The final climb was hard enough to make a difference, but we had two cards to play," Andersen told Cyclingnews, pointing out that teammate Sam Oomen had started the day in 6th overall. "When De la Cruz attacked, I felt good and I thought, 'I’m here to race', so I went with him."
Andersen was followed by Stybar and later Steve Cummings, though he performed the lion’s share of the pace-making as the trio passed the day’s early break and began to establish a sizeable advantage over a yellow jersey group where Pogačar found allies to be in short supply.
"I wanted to put pressure on UAE, that’s why I went. I wanted to win the stage, too, of course, but the main goal was to put pressure on UAE," explained Andersen, who was in the virtual overall lead by the time he entered the final 10 kilometres.
With teammate Tim Declercq among the survivors in the day’s early break and Enric Mas still in podium contention in the group behind, Stybar had two compelling reasons not to collaborate with Andersen on the run-in. No matter, the 2018 Paris-Tours winner continued to extend his hypothetical buffer over Pogačar all the way to the base of the Malhão.
"It was sad I got Stybar with me because he could sit on my wheel," said Andersen, who saw little point in trying to cajole the Czech into taking turns on the front.
"I’d rather spend my energy on something I can control. His tactic is not in my charge. He was on the wheel. Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes you are unlucky."
The three leaders had more than a minute in hand on the Pogačar group when they began the 3km haul up the Malhão, where Andersen immediately upped the pace to shed Cummings. Stybar, however, proved a more resilient foe, and remained grimly on his wheel as the gradient ratcheted upwards.
"I tried to drop Cummings pretty fast because I know he’s not so explosive. That’s why I made an acceleration in the bottom and after that I tried to pace myself to the 1k sign, where there was a bit of a plateau," Andersen said.
Inside the final kilometre, Stybar just about managed to punch his way clear of Andersen, though the Sunweb man fought gamely all the way to the line, coming in 3 seconds down. "It’s just a little bit annoying that I lost by 25 metres, but I’m happy about how I raced," Andersen said.
The succession of accelerations in the yellow jersey group, meanwhile, saw Pogačar’s deficit to Andersen decrease rapidly on the final ramps before the finish. The 20-year-old weathered the storm to place 6th on the stage, 18 seconds down on Stybar, and secure overall victory.
Andersen, for his part, had to settle for second place on general classification, 14 seconds behind Pogačar, but he could draw solace from his display in what was his first race of the 2019 season. Grander appointments await, starting at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad next weekend.
"I wanted to start a nice culture in Sunweb, where we are racing in the front," Andersen said. "Often it pays off – and if not, it’s good training."