The first mountaintop finish of the Tour de France on Thursday was a day of extreme contrasts for the Bahrain-Merida team. Dylan Teuns secured a prestigious victory at La Planche des Belle Filles in the heart of the Vosges mountains, but team leader Vincenzo Nibali lost 49 seconds to a rampant Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos), and seemingly with it the desire to fight for the overall classification.
Nibali is now 1:56 behind new race leader and probable future teammate Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), who finished second behind Teuns after being in the break of the day. Nibali lost contact with the big-name overall contenders in the final dirt-road kilometre as the race exploded.
He slipped to 1:07 down on Thomas in the overall standings, with many other riders gaining precious seconds on the Sicilian. Only Ciccone's Trek-Segafredo teammate Richie Porte and Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) are worse-placed after Trek-Segafredo's terrible team time trial and Bardet's bad day in the Vosges.
Nibali and his coach Paolo Slongo had suggested that La Planche des Belle Filles would be a watershed moment for their overall ambitions, but Nibali's chances of a top-five result appear as dubious as his judgment of the stage.
"Pfffft. I don't know what really happened," Nibali said after descending to the Bahrain-Merida team bus parked at the foot of the climb.
"It was a hard stage and the pace was high all day. I paid for it in the last 500 metres. When I got out of the saddle, there was nothing there. That's it – there's not much else to say…
"I wanted to understand what my form was like, and perhaps now I know," he nevertheless added. "I'm the only rider, along with Mikel Landa [Movistar], who has ridden the Giro d'Italia, and that changes things. It's never easy to find your form after racing hard and then spending a month out to recover and train. I didn't feel bad but I'm not 100 per cent happy. Now we'll see what happens for the rest of the race."
If Nibali opts to target stages rather the overall classification, he'll have to drop out of the overall classification by easing up in the coming stages, so he can go on the attacks in the Pyrenees. He's likely to have to lose 30 minutes or more in the hope that it gives him the freedom to go on the attack.
Teuns on cloud nine after stage win on Tour de France debut
In contrast to Nibali's sense of disappointment, Teuns was on cloud nine after he won Thursday's stage to La Planche des Belles Filles.
First he made sure that he was part of the 14-rider break of the day, and then survived to fight for victory with Ciccone. The Italian had won a stage and the mountains classification at the recent Giro d'Italia, but Teuns was a stage winner at the Criterium du Dauphine in June, and rode a perfect finale, distancing Ciccone almost in sight of the line, when the biggest effort was needed.
"It's an amazing win for me, and a dream come true. It's my first Tour de France and I've won a stage. Wow!" Teuns said.
"It was a man-to-man fight with Ciccone. The last 500 metres were very hard, and I was nervous after losing to Michael Woods [EF Education First] in a similar situation at the Vuelta. I thought about that, and how I'd made mistakes, and I was determined to learn from them and put things right this time. I waited until the last corner and then managed to open a small gap. I saw I could keep it and went all out, all the way to the line. I was so tired, and the climb was so steep, that it was difficult to put my arm up to celebrate."
The skinny Belgian is a respectable climber, but hadn't won a race for almost two years until his stage win – and day in the leader's yellow jersey – at the Dauphine in June.
"I had some good results, and was on the podium 10 times [on stages at last year's Vuelta a Espana, and at Il Lombardia, where he was third last October], but never on the top step. But this last month, everything has come together, and I've shown what I can do. I'm really happy about that," he said.
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.