After doing so much of the heavy lifting to ensure the surprise success of the break on stage 3 of the BinckBank Tour, fourth place initially felt like a scant reward for Matej Mohoric. As the Bahrain-Merida rider wheeled to a halt in Antwerp, however, it gradually became apparent that he would receive the considerable consolation of moving into the green jersey of race leader.
"I always had the general classification in the back of my mind beside the stage victory. I still focused on the stage win, but I knew it was going to be quite hard as the other guys knew I was the strongest because I pulled the most to arrive to the finish with the biggest gap possible," Mohoric said just past the finish line on Desguinlei.
Mohoric was the driving force behind the five-man break that upset the sprinters by coming in 1:11 clear of the peloton. The Slovenian attacked to pick up 9 seconds during the trio of 'Golden Kilometre' bonus sprints in the finale and then kicked three more times on the run-in. Taco van der Hoorn (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij) would ultimately clip away for the stage victory, however, and Mohoric risked coming away empty-handed when Sean De Bie (Veranda's Willems-Crelan) pipped him to third place on the stage and the final bonus seconds.
"In the final, I tried to go with the Roompot guy when he attacked but I couldn't close the gap," Mohoric said. "I thought that Sean De Bie would do a long sprint, but he decided to target me and sprint for second place afterwards, which is fine. But I think I might just still get the jersey."
Indeed, as Mohoric spoke at the finish, his Bahrain-Merida entourage were performing the mental arithmetic to establish whether he or De Bie would be called to the podium. A discreet nod from a soigneur confirmed that he would take over from Stefan Küng (BMC) atop the overall standings. Mohoric starts stage 4 with a lead of one second over De Bie, with Küng a further 21 seconds back in third.
The BinckBank Tour's first stage on Belgian roads was expected to finish in a bunch sprint, but when Küng's BMC team handed over the reins at the head of the peloton, there was a marked hesitancy among the sprinters' teams. On reaching the finishing circuit with 25km to go, Mohoric and company still had almost three minutes in hand, and the combined might of Quick-Step Floors, LottoNL-Jumbo and Mitchelton-Scott could not peg them back.
"I think they underestimated how technical the final circuit was. I think from 7k to 2k to go was super technical, it was just corner after corner with cobbles in between. In the end, the peloton can't make any time back so it's easier for the breakaway," Mohoric said. "We also worked well together, I convinced the guys to go full gas for the last hour and they did so."
GC and Classics
After winning the junior world title in Valkenburg in 2012 and then claiming the under-23 crown in Florence a year later, Mohoric arrived in the professional ranks with Cannondale in 2014 with the loftiest of reputations, but he took time to find his feet at WorldTour level. In hindsight, it was only to be expected; Mohoric may be in his fifth professional season, but he will not turn 24 until October.
"When I turned pro I was just a little kid, I was just 19 years old, so I took some time to get used to the next level. It was a big, big step for me," Mohoric said. "Those first three years were not the best for me but step by step, I started to improve."
A stage win at last year's Vuelta a España in the colours of UAE Team Emirates underscored Mohoric's class, and his maturation has continued apace since joining Bahrain-Merida, where he was has won four races, including a fine victory at Gualdo Tadino on the Giro d'Italia.
In the wake of that triumph, Bahrain-Merida leader Vincenzo Nibali suggested to La Gazzetta dello Sport that the versatile Mohoric's future might ultimately lie in the cobbled Classics. Mohoric has eschewed the pavé favour of the Ardennes Classics throughout his career to date, but the chance to test himself on the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg on Sunday's final stage was part of his motivation for riding the BinckBank Tour.
"My experience on the cobbles is non-existent because I've never done a Belgian Classic. I've always had a wish to do it but never had the occasion. I'm very much looking forward to it, I think I'm quite suited for the Belgian Classics with my characteristics," Mohoric said.
"At the Giro, the team said during the summer I could do one race to ride GC, BinckBank or Poland and I went for BinckBank because I think I'm quite well-suited for Belgium and the races here. I like it when there's a lot of stress in the bunch and a fight for positions. I'm looking forward to the rest of the stages here. We'll see how it goes. I have no experience on the cobblestones but I'm not afraid of it. I have a lot of respect but I'm not afraid of it."
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