Between Bahrain-Merida's stage win, Trek-Segafredo's yellow jersey, and Team Ineos' GC gains, the Tour de France's fourth visit to La Planche des Belles Filles was a fruitful one for a number of teams. Movistar may not have come away with the prizes, but their actions during the 160.5-kilometre battle through the Vosges mountains on stage 6 spoke volumes.
Although Ineos moved up on the final ramps of the day, it was Movistar who went to work on the front of the peloton with over 50 kilometres to race, on the Ballon d'Alsace, and continued to do so through the lower slopes of the final climb to the finish.
Andrey Amador, Marc Soler and road race world champion Alejandro Valverde set the pace at various points as Movistar laid down a statement of intent on the first mountain stage of the race – one which saw key Ineos man Wout Poels dropped before the final climb. Mikel Landa's ultimately unsuccessful attack was the end result, although there were some positives to be drawn from the day.
"I had good feelings and I wanted to confirm them to see if there was a little more movement," said Landa on his team's website after the stage. "But on a finish like this, with such hard ramps, you always look a little more towards the end. It was a difficult stage to open a gap on."
Landa jumped away from the thinning GC group three kilometres from the line, with the gravel section and the 20 per cent gradients still to traverse. He flew away in the drops, gaining 15 seconds before Groupama-FDJ's work for local hero Thibaut Pinot reeled him back.
The Basque rider paid a little for his efforts, finishing 10th and dropping nine seconds to Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos), but nevertheless saw the day as a constructive one.
"The feelings are good and, even though Thomas has taken a few seconds more, [the stage] confirms the feeling I had," he said. "I think we can go well and face the next mountain stages with confidence."
Nairo Quintana, the second part of the team's leadership duo, also lost time – seven seconds to Thomas – while Valverde's work and eventual 29th place finish confirmed the world champion's pre-race assertions that he was there to help Landa and Quintana, and not race for himself, this year.
Three-time Tour podium finisher Quintana was pleased to limit his losses, noting that the brutally steep slopes weren't an ideal match to his strengths as a rider.
"These finishes are very hard for us," he said on the Movistar website. "We're climbers, but this kind of steep finish is really tough. Today, we did a great job as a team and, in the end, we got part of what we wanted, which was to not lose [major] time."
Quintana raced a full early-season stage-race campaign, from the Vuelta a San Juan in February through to the Vuelta a Catalunya at the end of March. For much of the next two months, however, he opted to train at home in Colombia before returning to Europe for the Critérium du Dauphiné.
The result is not a whole lot of racing in the legs coming to the Tour, and, with the Dauphiné only featuring one truly hard mountain stage, even less racing up climbs. It's something that no doubt affected the Colombian, among other GC contenders, coming in to La Planche.
"The first day in the mountains is always complicated, until the legs adapt," said Quintana. "It was also difficult to open gaps; the contenders are very fresh. So we will have to continue to wait for the days to pass to see what will happen."
With six stages of prime sprint and breakaway opportunity now on the menu, followed by the Pau time trial on stage 13, which is likely to see Thomas gain more time on the Movistar men, it does indeed look like a waiting game for the Spanish squad. If today's tactics were a warm-up for the Pyrenees and Alps, we might just see a bigger challenge to Ineos than anticipated.
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