When he set out from Saint-Étienne Sunday morning for the opening stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, Lotto Soudal's Thomas De Gendt was focused squarely on the polka-dot jersey. Some 170.5 kilometres later, however, he was being helped into the yellow jersey, with legitimate ambitions of leading the race all the way to the true mountains.
The Belgian, a bona fide breakaway specialist, got himself up the road and led the way over every one of the eight categorised climbs, producing a particularly strong display on the three 15-kilometre finishing laps to shake himself free of his companions and keep the peloton at bay.
As well as fulfilling his objective of taking control of the mountains classification, he now leads the general classification by 48 seconds.
"In the first 120 kilometres I wasn't thinking about the victory, but more about the mountains points. Today was my first race since Romandie, so one month without racing, and this week is more about training for the Tour de France for me. Today was meant to be a hard day for me, to get the intensity, and it still was, but I also had the victory by accident, and I'm really happy with that," De Gendt said in the winner's press conference in Saint-Etienne.
"I started to believe we could make it when we came in for the local laps and we still had almost four minutes. The peloton could only close the gap on the flat or on the climb – not on the six-kilometre downhill. When I was with Axel Domont alone [ed. on the penultimate lap], that's when I believed I myself could win it."
De Gendt now leads the race by 48 seconds ahead of Domont, with the true general classification contenders all 1:09 in arrears. The first question posed to him – light-heartedly – was whether he's now a potential winner of the race.
No, was the short answer, but he is confident the leader's jersey will be on his shoulders for a good while yet. The following two stages are set to culminate in bunch sprints, while he has enough faith in his time trialling abilities – he was fourth at the Belgian nationals last year – to negotiate stage 4. If so, stage 5 is another one for the sprinters, though De Gendt knows the the high mountains in the final three stages spell trouble – not least the Mont du Chat, the final climb on stage 6 that averages over 10 per cent.
"For now have I have the yellow jersey, and I hope I will still have it after the time trial, but will be difficult to keep it after that," he said.
"On the first mountain stage there's the Mont du Chat – I think that's too steep for me," he added. "So I'll lose it that day."
De Gendt's performance on Sunday, after a month away from racing, suggests he's on the right track for the Tour de France. He claimed the biggest victory of his career there last year at Chalet Reynard, half-way up Mont Ventoux, and was also second behind Greg Van Avermaet on a medium mountain stage from Limoges to Le Lioran earlier in the race.
Nevertheless, he feels a repeat next month is a tall order.
"I think there are fewer possibilities," he said. "Yesterday I was looking at the profiles and there are a lot of flat stages. Then the mountain stages are really hard, and there's not much in between.
"If you're in the break on the mountain stages you can gain enough points to think about the mountains jersey, so that's possible, but for a stage victory, I think it's harder."
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