After three days for the mountain specialists and time triallists, a tricky final kilometre in the Ruta del Sol's stage 4 could not stop French fast man Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) from clinching a sprint victory at the first available opportunity.
Always strong in the earliest part of the season, Coquard, 24, has won no fewer than seven stages of the Etoile de Besseges in his career to date. Having switched his season start to Spain in 2017, he has already captured a win in the Vuelta a Valenciana's last stage two weeks ago, once again in Seville on Saturday, Coquard was the fastest.
It was close, though: Coquard had to wait until the closing metres of the sprint before he could be certain of the victory. His most tenacious rival, Daniel Hoelgaard (FDJ), had managed to come through a highly technical segment of the final kilometre at the front of the pack. But Coquard's late acceleration finally allowed him to steam past the Norwegian for a narrow but clear victory. Given that Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) won the last Ruta del Sol stage to be decided in a bunch sprint - at Cordoba last year - Coquard's victory meant the French have continued to dominate in the Ruta's flat stages.
"It was a tricky finale, but fortunately I had had a very good day, I was well supported by my teammates, particularly Yohann Gene and Romain Sicard," Coquard said afterwards. "Together with our two guys on the front, Movistar had two as well, and things were kept well under control to pull back the sprint."
The last part of the stage, though, was anything but straightforward, he recounted. "The only problem came with about ten kilometres to go when my teammates and I lost sight of each other in the bunch. Things came back together two kilometres from the finish, but then it was a very tricky run-in."
As the bunch emerged from a sharp right-hand bender into the 300 metre finishing straight, Coquard gambled, he said, with opening up his sprint on the right-hand side of the road. "I didn't know which line the guy ahead [Hoelgaard] was going to take. Fortunately, I made the correct choice."
It had been a good start to the year, he agreed, "and I'm very pleased for the team, above all. They did almost all the hard work all day, with a bit from LottoNL-Jumbo at the end, so it's nice to be able to give something back to them."
Coquard was guarded about his chances of taking a repeat victory on Sunday in Coin, given that the GC battle was still so close. "Contador's at one second, that's such a small margin that anything could still happen. It might be a stage that ends in a bunch sprint; it might be a different kind of battle altogether. Either way, my team's got a stage win in the bag, and that's what counts."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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