Bob Jungels arrived in Colombia at the end of January for an altitude training block topped off with the Tour Colombia 2.1 stage race. The general classification ambitions for him and his Deceuninck-QuickStep team were never very high, with a roster built around leading out sprinter Alvaro Hodeg being the main focus of the opening stages.
Now after four of six stages in the books, the Luxembourg champion has a stage win and the overall lead. Jungels seized the opportunity Friday during a circuit race in Medellin, outsprinting the climber-heavy field after most of the races' top pure sprinters faded over the course of a difficult day.
"It wasn't a stage that I had particularly planned or looked at because it was basically a so-called sprinter stage," Jungels said. "But these things do not exist in Colombia, I think."
After the bunch reeled in the day's breakaway with 10km to go, the race turned into complete chaos without any organised sprint trains taking control. Attacks flew up the road constantly until Jungels attacked the final kilometre and opened up enough of a gap to hold off the charge from Israel Cycling Academy's Mihkel Raim. His teammate Julian Alaphilippe finished third.
"It's been a very tough day, it's been warm," Jungels said in the post-stage press conference. "There was a little less altitude than before, but the climb was tough, and after three laps we knew that our sprinters were fully out of the game. The end scenario was almost the same as yesterday.
"I was talking with Julian [Alaphilippe], and he just said, 'Yeah, go for yourself.' He tried on the climb. Yesterday I tried to pull the sprint for him. Today I tried it on my own and I succeeded, and I'm glad that it happened like this."
Jungels timed his move perfectly as the scattered field was chasing down two late escapees who were dangling off the head of the race. The powerful Luxembourg rider opened an instant gap in the bunch and quickly overtook the duo up front. From there he poured on the power.
"I think an attack like that is always based on feeling," he said when asked about the timing of his move. "There were two riders who had a slight advantage. I hunted those down and I just knew it was the moment to go.
"I think it was 1.2km to go, and I knew if I had 50 metres it would be quite hard without any organised team behind to catch me, so I just gave it a go. Like I say, these things are very hard to plan. It's mostly on listening to your gut."
Listening to his gut not only earned Jungels the stage win, the 10-second time bonus to the winner, and lifted him into the overall lead, where he's now two seconds head of Alaphilippe and four seconds clear of EF Education First's Dani Martinez and Lawson Craddock.
The final two stages over the next two days will be incredibly difficult. Stage 5 will take place on a lumpy route that starts and finishes 2,476m above sea level and tops out twice on Alta La Union at 2,476m. Although stage 6, with its 15.5km final climb of Alto las Palmas, is considered the Queen stage, the real test for the GC contenders will start tomorrow. Jungels said he and Alaphlippe will fight for the overall win, but he tried to lower expectations about their success.
"I have to say that the team came here with small ambitions for GC," he said. "Now we're in a pretty good position with GC, but there are two very hard stages left. We are very realistic and honest with ourselves racing at altitude on high mountains. There are better climbers, and there are definitely riders who have a better shape at the moment on that terrain.
"I wouldn't put the expectations too high, either on Julian or myself, over the next two days. But I think, as you know, in our team we don't just give the jersey away."
The Classics and the Giro
After winning his first monument in 2018 at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Jungels is once again targeting the Classics ahead of his planned start at the Giro d'Italia. He'll hit the cobbles in Belgium at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne first, then jump back into stage racing at Paris-Nice before his final Classics block and the Giro.
"It's hard to say what perfect preparation for the Classics is," he said when asked about his current training focus. "I think I will always be a rider who is between being a climber and a Classics rider, but I have very good experience with the altitude training, so that's the main reason I did this training camp before, combined with such a beautiful experience as I'm having here in Colombia.
"Of course, coming back now to Belgium, it's going to be a few degrees colder and a bit bumpier, but I think the power is there, and afterwards there's Paris-Nice, which is a very interesting race. So I'm just trying to focus a bit more in the individual races and just try to do it a bit more often like today."