All eyes were on Julian Alaphilippe ahead of stage 4 of Paris-Nice with much expected of the 24-year-old Frenchman. Few, however, expected such a dominant onslaught with the Quick-Step rider winning the stage at a canter to move into the leader's yellow jersey.
The 14.5km stage to the summit of Mont Brouilly acted as the perfect intermission in the race's parcours. After three days of intense racing of crosswinds and sprints, this was the pause before one more sprint stage and then the mountains. Alaphilippe, already a player on stages 1 and 2, seized his opportunity perfectly, and in a significant gesture of his progress knocked Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) off the hot seat to win the stage by 19 seconds. He now leads the race by 33 seconds over countryman Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal), and France is closing in on its first homegrown winner of Paris-Nice in 20 years.
"It was a course that really suited me. It was fast and technical because of the rain and then we climbed Mont Brouilly," Alaphilippe said as he addressed the media in his post-stage press conference.
"I had great legs and this was a perfect course for me. I started focussing on the course last night and then I just went flat out from the start. I was hanging on for as long as possible."
A former winner of the Tour of California and recent podium placer in the Ardennes, this was Alaphilippe's biggest win so far.
"This win gives me a massive amount of satisfaction. I've had good places before and been close to victory, but I just needed to seize the opportunity. I had to go for it."
Stage 5 is destined for the sprinters, but the remaining days of the race will test Alaphilippe's mettle. He has never led such a prestigious race and his rivals will certainly look to isolate him before attempting to exploit any weaknesses. With teammate Dan Martin sitting fifth on GC, Alaphilippe has the perfect foil, but the new race leader will not take anything for granted.
"I'm confident in the team that we have. I don't want to think about Sunday [ed. - the final stage of the race] too much and I'm just going to take it stage-by-stage. We've already seen that a lot has happened in this Paris-Nice. There are lots of rivals and winning will take a lot of hard work. The 30 seconds or one minute that I have are not a lot when the mountains come but I'm not going to worry about that too much, too soon."
Stage 6 to Fayence will be the first test for Alaphilippe as a race leader, but stage 7 and the summit finish on the Col de la Couillole will be a far sterner examination.
"I know the Col de la Couillole and I checked it out a few months ago, although that was in training conditions. This time it's going to be a lot harder as I've got four stages in my legs and I'll have rivals ready to attack me. It's not the only difficult moment left in the race though. Every stage from now on will be tough."