While it may have been the most straightforward of the three days in the mountains that conclude the Critérium du Dauphiné, the final 50km of stage 6 through the rugged Chartreuse massif that overlooks Grenoble was packed with helter-skelter action.
It ended with Movistar veteran Alejandro Valverde edging out Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) to claim victory, his first in a sprint from a small group since the opening stage of the 2019 Route d’Occitanie.
Fifteen years younger than the Spaniard, Geoghegan Hart was quick to congratulate Valverde on his success.
"Chapeau to him, he’s pure class in the bunch. To be honest, I think you’d be very hard pressed to find a rider who doesn’t see that class in how he moves around the bunch, how he treats others, how he respects people in the race," said the Briton.
Reflecting on his own performance and that of his team, Geoghegan Hart said Ineos had found themselves with "an embarrassment of riches" on the last climb, where he made the decision to chase down late attacks by Intermarché’s Louis Meintjes and, more significantly, Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu.
"Rather than just sitting on the front line, why not follow them?" he reasoned. "We definitely weren’t in a position where we needed to work, and it wasn’t that long a climb."
Asked about this "embarrassment of riches" and whether it can sometimes be a complicating factor for Ineos as well as benefiting them, Geoghegan Hart said: "Yeah, it can be, but it’s one of the reasons that we’re here, with the Tour in mind, and obviously one of the reasons that you try to build a team so that you don’t always need to communicate; you know what to do."
Geoghegan Hart confirmed that there was a slight mix-up in the sprint for the line, as he led out Thomas, who quickly lost the wheel and later pondered whether Geoghegan Hart had realised.
"Even still it can go wrong," Geoghegan Hart admitted. "I was trying to help G for the final and I probably had good enough legs to go for the sprint myself a little bit later. But that’s how it goes, and there are worse riders to lose out in a sprint to."
With Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte safely in the 20-strong front group led in by Valverde, Ineos find themselves in a very strong position going into the Dauphiné’s final weekend. Thomas lies fourth, Porte is sixth and Geoghegan Hart has moved up six places to 14th, giving them three cards to play, with Thomas still the ace.
But their rivals also showed they’re still very much in the game, particularly Astana-Premier Tech and Movistar, who both took the pace-making on with significant effect. Geoghegan Hart described the pace as being "consistent" until Astana picked it up with 3km remaining on the Col de Porte, the biggest climb of the day.
"That was only place really where it was whittled down until the last five or six k's," said the Ineos rider. "Movistar took it on from there. Carlos Verona did a long, long turn on one of the kicks and a bit of a valley," he added.
This jousting provided an intriguing spectacle given what’s to come, beginning with a stage on Saturday that features the Col du Pré-Cormet de Roselend combination that will feature on the opening mountain stage of the Tour de France in four weeks’ time. The race will conclude on Sunday at the 2,064-metre-high ski station of La Plagne, where Ineos will be hoping their embarrassment of riches will pay dividends.
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