The Mur de Bretagne is often referred to as the Alpe d'Huez of Brittany, and although the two-kilometre effort can't shape the Tour de France like its Alpine cousin, it nevertheless provides some interesting clues. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) all suffered here in the first week of the 2015 Tour, while Andy Schleck lost time on the previous visit in 2011.
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Bardet were the headline losers on Thursday, but Chris Froome's more modest time losses certainly didn't go unnoticed, especially on a day when his Sky teammate and perhaps 'co-leader' Geraint Thomas actually gained time.
Froome was safely in the main group of favourites most of the way up the steep two-kilometre final climb, but he lost contact when Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) set off for third place in the final couple of hundred metres and the rest of the riders sprinted for the line. While Thomas, who was responding to accelerations at the head of the bunch, finished ninth – three seconds behind stage winner Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) – Froome conceded eight seconds to Martin, and five to the GC group.
At the top of the hill Froome turned around and rode straight back down to the Team Sky bus, where he seemed unconcerned by the time lost, arguing that his best legs will come later in the race, as they did in his recent Giro d'Italia victory.
"That's the plan for me. The second or third week, I plan to be in the best shape possible," he told Cyclingnews.
"We always knew it was going to be selective today in the final. Dan Martin obviously hit out early. He was always going to be one of the guys, one of the punchier kind of guys like him, Alaphilippe or Latour, we always expected to be making one of the moves."
In contrast to Froome, Thomas, who sees himself as a co-leader rather than a 'Plan B', put in an assured display on the first real uphill test of this Tour de France, riding in the first few positions most of the way up the climb. He found himself on the front when Dan Martin attacked but eased up to look around at the group, and when Pierre Latour (AG2R La Mondiale) and Valverde in turn set off in pursuit, he chose not to try and follow.
"It was as expected really, it was another solid day a lot of stress in the final and then obviously a hard last climb. Fair play. I thought when [Dan Martin] went away, I thought I'd try and close him but everyone was on me so I swung over but fair play he was super strong to hold on like he did," Thomas said.
"For the stage, Latour went quite early as well, and I thought I'd wait a little but the same thing he was strong and stayed away as well but I thought I could still get third. Get a bonus, maybe take the jersey as well but when Valverde kicked I knew I wasn't going to get around him, so I stayed in the wheel saved that one per cent maybe for another day."
Thomas now finds himself second overall, three seconds behind Greg Van Avermaet, in what has been a flawless start to the race. With a lead of 1:02 over Froome, and nearly a minute on the rest of the GC contenders, his case for leadership status is stronger than ever.
The 32-year-old has avoided the mishaps that have cost so many of his rivals so far, Froome included, and finds himself in an enviable position after Sky's strong team time trial performance on stage 3. He has even made use of the new ‘point bonus’ system in place on the first nine stages to add to his advantage. After picking up a second almost by accident on Sunday, he struck out from the bunch just after the first ascent of the Mur to pick up two seconds, lone leader Jack Bauer having grabbed the first three.
“It was more just see how it was on the road and when it happened, it didn’t look like anyone was really going for it and there were still two seconds out there,” Thomas explained.
"I just took it while I could. I don't think they'll let me do that again now, not a third time lucky."
As for Froome’s view of it: "If they were there, yeah. If they were up for grabs G was going to go for them."
While Froome is thinking about the second half of the race, there’s a possibility Thomas could be in an even stronger position come the first rest day, with the Welshman widely expected to go better over Sunday’s cobbles than Froome. If so, it will give Sky something of a headache when the race hits the mountains.
"As well as Froome, G is a top, top GC contender for sure," said Team Sky directeur sportif Nico Portal.
"He was already in this position this morning so it’s fine for us, we've got a plan anyway there are two guys to support, which is always good for the second and third week."
Thomas has had more than his share of crashes and bad luck over the years, so perhaps he's wondering how things are all going so smoothly, when almost everyone else has suffered at the hands of the chaos.
"It's one of those weeks, a lot is happening. I'm sure it's not over yet, especially come Sunday, which will be action packed," he said.
"I think [Sunday] is more about riding like we have been all week. Try to be in the front and try to take any opportunity but it's going to be a crazy, crazy day."