Thomas De Gendt very nearly pulled off a victory in Paris-Nice, putting in a stinging late attack that dropped the last of his day-long breakaway companions, Katusha's Egor Silin, on Thursday's stage 5. But with only 300 meters to go and 380km of attacking in two days, the Lotto Soudal rider lacked the punch to stay ahead of the sprinters.
“Of course you’re disappointed when you’re so close to the victory. It’s a pity, but we can’t change anything," De Gendt said after watching Lampre-Merida's Davide Cimolai take the victory.
De Gendt was consoled by securing another day in the polka dot jersey of leader of the mountains classification. He leads the classification by 40 points over compatriot Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Chris Anker Sörensen (Tinoff-Saxo), but knows his overall win in the mountains ranking is far from certain.
“With forty points lead on the second rider in the KOM classification it looks good, but it’s not sure yet," De Gendt said.
De Gendt's romp on the mountains began in the race's first categorized climb, the Côte de Bel Air on stage 1, after he conceded 37 seconds in the prologue and his general classification hopes had all but vanished. Gilbert took over on stage 3 after going in a breakaway and claiming all three category 3 climbs on the route to Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule.
But De Gendt had pencilled in stage 4 to the Croix de Chaubouret as his day to mop up as many points as possible, and he fiercely defended his aim in the breakaway that day, taking seven mountain sprints (five category 3 and two important category 2 climbs) to regain the polka dot jersey.
He wasn't over yet: stage 5 from Saint-Étienne to Rasteau started out with a critical category 1 ascent, the Col de la République, and it belonged to De Gendt.
"The plan was to take points on the first climb if possible," he said. "I easily escaped the peloton at a moment when lots of riders got dropped. I picked up the points and normally it was the plan that I would wait for the bunch. But I asked the sports directors if I could stay in front because I felt I had really good legs and there were four strong riders with me. There was a good cooperation between us and I could take the maximum of the points on every climb. Then I aimed for the stage win. I came close.”
Now De Gendt faces another day with multiple massive climbs: stage 6 has three each category 1 and 2 climbs, with the first ascent the Col de Vence peaking at kilometer 35. The battle will be on early in the day.
"Tomorrow there are 51 points to gain, so all is still possible," De Gendt said. "We’ll have to wait for the first two climbs to see if someone will become a danger. If Gilbert or Sorensen attacks, I’ll have to follow, because they are my main opponents. If at least three riders take off, who don’t have any points yet, then I win the jersey.”