The fifth stage in the 2018 Tour de France was the first course that featured a lot of climbing, with no less than five categorized climbs in the final 100 kilometres. The rolling roads in Britanny led the riders from Lorient to Quimper, where several one-day specialists had marked out this day as a chance to hunt down a stage win and take a shot at the yellow jersey.
Coming into the stage, Greg Van Avermaet was the race leader due to a strong performance from BMC Racing in Monday's team time trial. Van Avermaet hoped to win on the Flemish Community Day while wearing the yellow jersey. It didn't happen. Van Avermaet opted to defend his yellow jersey rather than gambling for the stage win. At 12km from the finish, Van Avermaet sprinted for two bonus seconds, while Quick-Step Floors' Julian Alaphilippe took three seconds.
Later, Van Avermaet closed down the gap on attacker Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) while world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was marking his wheel. For most of their career, Van Avermaet and Gilbert have been fighting out some sort of rivalry. Sagan benefited from the Van Avermaet-Gilbert rivalry and got the last laugh, capturing his second stage victory in this Tour de France. Van Avermaet remains in yellow but did have some regrets.
"I think I made some mistakes but need to see the images to know more," Van Avermaet said in a short post-race press grill. "I had to react on Phil because he's still close in the GC. He went, and you never know with Phil. He can maybe go to the finish line, so I go. When I catch him back, he stopped his effort. From there it was really hard to go back. It was way too early to relaunch the sprint."
Van Avermaet then explained that his timing was off because he expected the finish line to be closer to the final corner.
"They said the final corner was 250 metres from the finish, but it was 350 metres. That was way too far to make a result," he said.
When asked about how that mistake was made, Van Avermaet referred to a GPX-file that was used to determine the distance. The GPS Exchange Format (GPX) sets out a track with multiple trackpoints that can then be used to measure the distance between those points.
"I don't know. We watched the gpx file," he said. "Maybe it's not up until 100m correct [laughs]. We have to check. We measured from the point in the corner and that showed 250 metres. That's how it is. In the end, it would be hard to beat Peter after the effort I did to catch Phil. That's how racing is. You make some decisions and only the guy who wins did the right thing.”
That guy who did the right thing was Sagan. Van Avermaet didn't hold back in heralding the Slovakian rider.
"I think Peter is a super strong rider," he said. "Sometimes in the Tour he goes in mountain stages ahead of everybody. Peter dropping… you have to be in the team time trial almost. I don’t know what happened there with him."
Van Avermaet was referring to the stage 3 team time trial, where Sagan was dropped quite fast by his teammates. Sagan said he had a bad day. Van Avermaet managed to beat Sagan in the classics of the 2017 spring season, but since that strong campaign he's fallen short.
"He's a super climber and a super sprinter," Van Avermaet said. "He’s world champion for something. It’s hard to get rid of him, so this was never the plan. I try to beat him. It worked out a few times. I try to do it again, but more recently it’s not happening that often any more."
This was the first stage that was marked out by Van Avermaet. Thursday's stage finish on the the Mûr de Bretagne, a 2km climb at 6.9 per cent, doesn't suit Van Avermaet as much as Wednesday's stage. He'll have a hard time holding onto the yellow jersey.
"This was a nice stage. It was a super-hard one," he said. "We went through super-small roads but happily there were no big crashes. They often say we need to be on big roads, but in a race where the fatigue gets into the riders it’s getting safer.
"There were no big crashes today. It's more controlled as in the classics. You can't expect attacks from 30km to go. It brings a nicer stage on TV. I like these kind of stages. I would be happy if there would come more in the Tour. It suits me better. This week is pretty good so far. We’ve got a few other chances this week. Tomorrow is maybe more a stage for real climbers, but I'm also going to be up there. We still have the stage to Roubaix, so it’s a good first week in the Tour for me so far."
A journalist asked if Quick-Step Floors was the main threat for Van Avermaet as he might be outnumbered in the finale when fighting up against Julian Alaphilippe, Philippe Gilbert and Bob Jungels. The trio are all within nine seconds from Van Avermaet.
"Everybody wants to ride in yellow once in his life," Van Avermaet said. "The bad thing about the yellow jersey is that you have to control the race and you spend more energy. Quick-Step have also spent some energy. We and Quick-Step are controlling the race so far. It costs a lot of energy. It depends on what you want to do. Sky isn't doing anything yet. There's still two weeks ahead. My favourite for tomorrow is Alaphilippe, so he can take the jersey from me. We'll see what happens tomorrow.”