When Movistar leader Enric Mas was asked on Monday's rest day to describe Tour de France leader Tadej Pogačar's final attack on Sunday afternoon's stage 9 en route to Tignes he used a very graphic phrase: "it was as if we didn't exist."
For Mas and the rest of the 2021 Tour de France GC contenders, that description neatly sums up how they will tackle the next two weeks.
Rather than looking at the yellow jersey, and no matter how many times we are reminded there is a long way to go to Paris, the reality is they will be focussing on their own battle to be the 'best of the rest'.
Mas himself is currently sixth overall at 5:47. He is part of an arc of ten GC contenders for the top three placings that begin with Sunday's winner Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën), second at two minutes behind Pogačar, and which finishes with Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) in 11th place at 8:38. But the majority of the chasers, like Mas, are at around five to six minutes down
The distances between the leader and the rest of the field are symptomatic of the harshness of this first week of the 2021 Tour, which Mas described as the "wildest I've ever done.
"There were a lot of crashes in the first two days. Then we had a day of brutal heat on Friday, the longest stage of the Tour. Finally, there were two days of rain and cold and hard racing which have had a major effect on GC."
The 26-year-old, fifth last year, said he has not had any major low points, apart from a crash early on Sunday morning. Coming off an early descent at speed, he skidded on the white line in the middle of the road and fell, hurting his left thigh. Mas was quickly back up again though and, having borrowed Alejandro Valverde's bike, he managed to make it back into the peloton.
Much further on in the stage, Mas was part of the group of favourites when Pogačar attacked following a brief dig by Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) on the Montée de Tignes.
"He didn't go all-out, as he can do at times. We [his rivals] were all thinking about the podium, and he just moved away as if we didn't exist. We made a mistake of not trying to follow, we shouldn't have let him get more time, but we were a bit scared that he would do what he did the day before," he argued.
'The day before' is shorthand for Pogačar's devastating attack on the road to Le Grand-Bornard which left his rivals reeling. But rather than being demoralised by his attacks, Mas said his recognising Pogačar's current strength was only logical and that nobody was unbeatable, either.
As he put it, "we know where we are. We know that any rider can have a bad day after they've not rested properly or something. I've seen that happen, too."
Apart from Pogačar, whom Mas recognised is operating on a different level, he believes there is a definite similarity in condition between the rest of the field.
"Now there's going to be a big fight to be in the podium, because a lot of us are all at the same time, roughly at about a minute or so. For the spectators, it'll be a nice battle."
Having a veteran like Alejandro Valverde as support in that fight was, he said, critical, and he praised the Spaniard's dedication to the team and his own cause.
"For example, at the foot of the climb to Tignes, Alejandro eased up. He wasn't going great. But over the radio, they told him to be up there again with me and after three or four kilometres, there he was, back again and helping again. He's a big support, or bigger, even than last year."
Mas was notably less forthcoming when about what had happened at the end of stage 7, when he was involved in what looked like a heated exchange of words with Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers).
Movistar had been one of several teams trying to chase down Richard Carapaz after the Ecuadorian launched an attack over the top of the Signal D'Uchon before being caught at the line. But Mas refused to comment when asked about it.
As for teammate and co-leader Miguel Ángel López, who also talked to the media on Monday, the Colombian is currently engaged in trying to battle back from a very difficult start to the race. Three crashes in the first week, and nearly failing to make the time cut on Sunday made for a very difficult race.
"I've never had such a hard day as yesterday [Sunday]," López said. "I've never been in the gruppetto before and I'm totally out of the GC fight. But we will do our best to fight for the podium with Enric."
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.
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.