The second stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné was a day of contrasts for Arnaud Démare (FDJ). The Frenchman made the uphill drag in the final 200 metres look easy – Alexander Kristoff and Nacer Bouhanni were convincingly put to the sword – but his dominance gave little indication of how he'd suffered just a couple of hours earlier.
The 171km stage from Saint-Chamond to Arlanc was always likely to culminate in a bunch sprint, but the trio of back-to-back climbs in the middle of the route – a category two, then three, then four – saw the Frenchman dropped from the peloton, while many of his rivals remained in the mix.
Démare had teammates with him to help steady the ship and he made amends in impressive fashion, taking a victory whose significance was only enhanced by the hardship.
"I'm so happy to have won a race on a day like that. This morning I was hoping for a sprint but I knew it was going to be tough. We had nearly 2,500 metres of altitude gain, and for the sprinters that takes its toll. It's very wearing. You saw that in the sprint, which wasn't super fast," Démare said in his winner's press conference in Arlanc.
"I had a bad moment on the 30 kilometres of climbing in the middle of the stage. Mentally it was difficult, and to be able to raise the arms at the end makes you forget about those moments. It's a bit like what I'm going to find at the Tour in a month's time. It's by overcoming these difficulties that you grow. Today, even after finding myself in trouble I was able to win. It's a scenario that I can replay in my head when I encounter similar moments."
No matter how much it sweetened the victory, Démare's early difficulty nevertheless served as a wake-up call. As he noted, the likes of Bouhanni and Kristoff, two of his companions from the opening day's gruppetto, dealt with the climbing comparatively comfortably.
A victory at the Dauphiné, the traditional pre-Tour de France build-up race, is a prized commodity, but this one suggested there's much still work to be done.
"I won, but I still hope to move up another notch before the Tour. I was in trouble today, when many of the other sprinters weren't. I hope to have better moments," Démare said.
"We did a heavy workload in Corsica last week with the team, and maybe there's a bit of fatigue from that. Davide Cimolai was in trouble as well. But I'm here to take advantage of the Dauphiné to take another step forward ahead of the Tour, which is the true number one goal."
Démare returns to the Tour de France next month after being sent away to the Giro d'Italia last year. The team management decided there wasn't enough room to provide both him and general classification rider Thibaut Pinot with adequate backing within the same nine-man squad for their very different objectives.
In a role reversal, Pinot was sent to the Giro last month with his GC lieutenants, leaving the coast clear for Démare to have a Tour team almost exclusively built around himself. "I don't know if it's my place to talk about it," he said, referring to FDJ's plans for the Tour, "but this year I'm going to have a team dedicated to me and the sprints. Thibaut will be able to have fun going for stage wins, but I'll have the back-up for the sprint stages. I think it's a good compromise.
"The sprint squad was already very good but we've reinforced it," he added, referring to the signings of Jacopo Guarnieri and Davide Cimolai. Olivier Le Gac, Marc Sarreau, Ignatas Konovalovas and Mickaël Delage are also expected to form part of the lead-out train.
"With this team, we have a ball. We were on training camp last week, and it felt more like a holiday than a camp. These things also contribute to results."