It was the tightest of finishes in the uphill sprint at the end of stage 4 of the Tour of Britain and while ultimately Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was edged out on the line by Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), the world champion is nevertheless taking the close run battle as an encouraging sign.
Both riders collapsed on the ground utterly spent after pushing each other to the limit as they fought for supremacy on the tough finish on the Great Orme climb. Alaphilippe opened up the sprint with about 150m to go but Van Aert held his wheel and then surged, just slipping ahead before the line.
“Not much is missing but it's encouraging for the future,” said Alaphilippe on social media. “Fire in the legs for the end of the season, it will pay off.”
The Tour of Britain is the last race for Alaphilippe before he lines up to defend his world title on September 26, just as it is for Van Aert who is expected to be one of the French rider's toughest rivals as he battles to hold onto the rainbow jersey.
As the final kilometres of stage 4 of the Tour of Britain approached, the breakaway group had been caught and then the lone attack of Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) was reeled back in before the final climb. Deceuninck-QuickStep controlled the pace on the run in and then Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett ramped it up on the lower slopes.
An acceleration from Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) drew a response from Van Aert and Alaphilippe, who then rode clear with the Canadian at just over one kilometre to go. A slight slowing of the pace, allowed race leader Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers) to latch back onto the trio, along with Honoré but that didn’t last long. The pressure ramped up again, with Honoré sparking another acceleration, and it then became clear the stage would come down to a duel between Alaphilippe and Van Aert.
Van Aert now holds the overall lead in the Tour of Britain, two seconds ahead of Hayter in second place and Alaphilippe, in third, is a further nine seconds behind. The only other rider within 30 seconds of the lead is Alaphilippe’s teammate Mikkel Honoré who crossed the line in fourth place, behind Woods, on the stage to also move into fourth overall.
“We did what we had to do, what we talked about before the start: we controlled the race, remained attentive and went on the offensive at the right moment, but another guy was stronger in the end,” Deceuninck-QuickStep sports director Geert Van Bondt said in a statement.
“Despite missing out on the win, we’ll keep fighting. We have the rainbow jersey on the team, he always display panache and we will continue to race accordingly, until the end, in the remaining stages.”
The are four days of the race left, with stage 5 from Alderley Park delivering three categorised climbs in the mid-section before a flat finish at Warrington. There is then another uphill finish on stage 6 before the race heads to Scotland for the last two days of the eight-day event, which finishes in Aberdeen.
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