On the opening stage of the 2019 Volta a Catalunya, only one name really counted as Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) powered to a hugely impressive solo victory, simultaneously netting the overall lead as well as almost all the secondary classifications.
De Gendt's victory came thanks to a faultlessly calculated estimate on how much time he would need on the rolling run-in to the finish, which saw the 32-year-old with ample margin to raise his arms in victory well before the line - and then again, as he crossed it.
"Yesterday [Sunday] evening, my team bosses asked me what the plan was, and I said if I had three minutes at the top of the final first category" - the Col de Formic, 56 kilometres from the finish - "then I'd be in with a good chance," De Gendt said. He would have 3:13 at that point in the stage on Monday.
"I knew these final 30 kilometres very well, and the wind was not blowing too hard when we went into the last part along the coast, into a headwind, and that was important.
"Even with a 1:30 margin at the top of the third category afterwards" - the Colsacreu at 17 kilometres to go, at which point De Gendt had well over two minutes to play with - "I could have done it. So it all went according to plan."
De Gendt finally crossed the line with a 2:38 advantage over his lone pursuer, Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), who just fended off the rest of the field to claim the Best Young Rider's jersey. But the rest of the jerseys, as well as the opening stage win, went to the Belgian.
Breakaway victories are not unprecedented at Calella, used by the Volta organisation as an opening stage finish since 2012. In 2016, Maciej Paterski fended off Pierre Rolland for the victory, the biggest of the pre-WorldTour CCC team's history, with De Gendt's former teammate Bart De Clercq in third. But solo wins like De Gendt's are much more unusual, with only Switzerland Michael Albasini's in the same finish in 2012 preceding the Belgian's lone victory on Monday in the Volta's record books.
With stage wins in 2018 (and the lead, for one day) at Camprodon as well as in 2016 (with the overall in the King of the Mountains competition) at Port Ainé, and 2013 at Barcelona, De Gendt has an excellent track record in Catalonia. And now he's added another to the list.
"It's my fourth victory here because I really like this race, and it's always in the right period for me at the beginning of the season," De Gendt said. "Here and at Paris-Nice" - where De Gendt recently claimed the King of the Mountains classification - "I always tend to do well. Every year it's more or less the same."
Part of a six-rider break at the start of the day, De Gendt turned up the pressure on the final first category climb, with only Luis Mate (Cofidis) able to stay with him for long. "There's a really steep part close to the top and that got rid of most of them, then on the last part, with about 55 kilometres to go, I attacked Mate again.
"When at top of the last climb, more or less 15 kilometres to go, I still knew had 300 Watts of power, and most of it was downhill, I thought I'd be ok for the win"
One by one, the pieces of the jigsaw forming the 18th victory of his career fell into place for De Gendt, with one last factor, the wind direction on the final grind along the Mediterranean coastline towards Calella, playing into his hands as well.
"The last five kilometres might have been a problem if the wind had been blowing differently and if the sprinters' teams had felt they might still win. But it wasn't, and with so many mountain climbs early on the stage, the sprinters had already been fighting for the whole stage to stay in the bunch and they were tired."
As for his chances of taking the overall victory, even with a 2:32 advantage over the rest of the field, De Gendt was highly doubtful - as he had been in 2018 - that he could hold the jersey for long. Interestingly, though, he tipped Paris-Nice victor Egan Bernal (Team Sky), not former triple Volta champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) as the top contender to take over the green and white jersey of race leader from him when the race moves into the Pyrenees on Wednesday.
"I don't think I will be in the fight, Bernal has already proved he is going very well this year, and I think I might keep the jersey tomorrow [Tuesday] but I will then lose it on the first mountain top finish," De Gendt said.
"If I can win another stage I will try to win another, and I also have also the King of the Mountains jersey, which was the second goal of the day." But in any case, with his first stage victory secured in the bag, De Gendt's 2019 Volta a Catalunya is already a triumph.
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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