QuickStep-AlphaVinyl came close to pulling off the same move twice in two days at Itzulia Basque Country, falling half a wheel short at the line as Julian Alaphilippe was pipped by local favourite Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) in Amurrio.
The third stage at Itzulia had been the hardest one yet in the week-long race, taking in two ascents of the 1-kilometre, 13 per cent Opellora and 3.6km, 7 per cent Ozeka before a hilly ride to the line. Victory was contested among a GC favourites group of just 13 after 181 kilometres of racing.
Alaphilippe's teammate Remco Evenepoel was among them, once again setting up the world champion into the final corner in a move planned beforehand and caught on TV cameras as the pair discussed it on the run-in.
"We decided to do the same as yesterday, but I think we started the sprint just two seconds too early otherwise we win again," Evenepoel said after the finish.
"It was a really hard finish straight with what felt like a bit of headwind. It's a pity but I think first and second is not a bad start to this week."
The young Belgian had earlier suffered on the closing climbs, briefly going out the rear of the lead group as Adam Yates attacked several times on Ozeka following work from his Ineos Grenadiers team.
A move from Bilbao on a short, steep, unclassified hill 13km out also caught him out, though he quickly came back, putting in a couple of moves himself before taking the front with 1.5km to go on Alaphilippe's behalf.
"It was incredible," Evenepoel said of the final. "The two major climbs in the final were really hard. It was actually really tough to hang on, especially when Yates put in an attack on the [second] climb, it was really hard. I just tried to put a really big pace to at least hang on with the group.
"There was conversation along the way between the favourites with me, Yates, [Primož] Roglič. They said we would ride to the finish and sprint, but there was one who didn't intend that. Bilbao went for it full force.
"I was actually going to pace the climb a bit to let Julian save energy. But then he attacked, and I had no answer immediately. I kept going and came back to the group on the big road."
Evenepoel concluded by saying, without too much belief, that he hopes the upcoming stages would be a little less tough. The hardest stages are yet to come though, with several of the remaining stages bringing far more climbing, including the final day atop the famous Alto de Arrate.
"I hope it will be a little less hard than today, but I think Basque Country is not known as an easy area," he said. "The thing was just the 1-kilometre climb was really brutal and a really bad road with concrete slabs. I've never done such a steep climb as that. Very special and really brutal. The second climb suited me a bit better but I was already suffering because Yates put in a big attack.
"I hope I can recover well and that tomorrow I can be up there with the GC guys again. I think the group that arrived today will be the guys who are fighting for GC this week."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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