Stage 7 from Vierzon to Le Creusot was the longest of the race at 249 kilometres, and it clearly lent itself to a breakaway. Rather than seek to control it, Van der Poel opted to join it, infiltrating the winning 29-rider move that took shape during a frenetic opening hour of racing.
Perhaps his muscle memory was triggered by the sight of his old sparring partner Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) among the early attackers. He certainly knew that the Belgian, 30 seconds down overall, was a live threat to his maillot jaune. For the bones of a decade amid the mud and cold of the cyclo-cross circuit, Van der Poel and Van Aert have regularly left the competition behind on the opening lap. On Friday, they seemed to transfer that duel to the longer format and white heat of the Tour, seemingly oblivious to the more than 200 remaining kilometres as they forged clear.
Initially allies of circumstance as the winning move established a five-minute lead on the peloton, they eventually jousted in the finale, with Van der Poel carefully marking Van Aert's attack on the last climb of the Côte de La Gourloye. Van der Poel took fourth on the stage, 1:40 down on lone winner Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious), but in the same time as Van Aert to retain the yellow jersey by half a minute from the Belgian.
"It was not my idea but a lot of guys wanted to be in the breakaway and there was a bit of war in the beginning. I was attentive and all of a sudden we went away in a big group and it was just racing all day. For sure I'm really happy with the result but I had to dig deep to keep the jersey today," said Van der Poel.
Despite the distance and the more than 3,000 metres of total climbing, the stage was run off at a blistering average speed of 45.521 kph. This may be the first Grand Tour of Van der Poel's career, but he is well aware that sustained intensity of this kind is far from the norm.
"It was very hard. I think a lot of guys had pain in the legs before the climbing started at all," he said. "It was just a brutal day and I haven't witnessed this a lot of times on the bike, that we raced for such a long time, especially in a Grand Tour. It's my first Grand Tour, but I've watched a lot on TV, and I haven't seen this."
Van der Poel's aggressive defence of the yellow jersey saw him finish almost four minutes clear of the reduced peloton of general classification contenders, and his buffer over defending champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) has thus swelled from eight seconds to 3:43.
Yet for all his adventure on the Tour's longest day, Van der Poel was compelled to play against type once the unwieldy 29-man move began to break up with more than 70km to go. The eventual winner Mohorič escaped with Brent Van Moer (Lotto Soudal) at that juncture, while Van der Poel carefully marked the men closest to him in the overall standings, Van Aert and Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
"It's a different approach to the race, I think. I just wanted to keep the jersey, so I only reacted to the guys who were close to me on the general," said Van der Poel.
"I had the yellow jersey in mind so it was impossible to react to everything. It was especially Van Aert and Asgreen I was looking at. They were close to me on general classification, so I had to react on those two riders and I'm happy to keep the jersey for one more day."
Van der Poel faces into the Alps with an enhanced advantage over the principal podium contenders, but although he has outmatched expectations for his entire career, he quietly downplayed his prospects of defending his yellow jersey through this weekend's Alpine doubleheader, not least because his mind is already turning towards the mountain bike event at the Tokyo Olympics, just 24 days away.
"I'm not here for GC ambitions, that's pretty clear. I just fought to keep the jersey for one more day and we'll see what tomorrow brings, but I'm not here to do a GC," said Van der Poel said. "I think I'm a bit too heavy to go smoothly over the mountains. But we'll see what's possible."
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