The hills of the Serra de Monchique are famed for the production of Aguardente de Medronhos, the fruit brandy known to the rest of the world as firewater, and there was a familiar burning sensation in the legs and lungs of those following the pace set by Team Sky as the Volta ao Algarve peloton climbed into the swirling clouds atop the Alto da Fóia on Thursday.
The fruits of Tao Geoghegan Hart's pace-making labours packed a particular sting, and when he swung off with a shade under two kilometres to go, only seven riders remained in the front group, including his teammates Wout Poels and David De La Cruz.
Already a strong performer at the Tour Down Under last month, Poels is perhaps the outstanding favourite for this Volta ao Algarve, and the Dutchman looked strongly placed to claim stage victory and the overall lead as the elite leading group passed beneath the flamme rouge with De La Cruz setting the tempo.
Poels bided his time as Amaro Antunes' late attack was snuffed out in the final kilometre before lifting himself from the saddle with a shade under 200 metres to go. The Alto da Fóia is a difficult finale to gauge, however, and Poels' task was complicated still further by the brisk wind at the summit. By his own admission, he opened his final effort a shade too early, and had to settle for second place just behind neo-professional Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).
"The wind was quite strong and David was pulling at a good pace so I didn't want to go too early because if you blow there you really blow," Poels told Cyclingnews as he warmed down past the finish line. "When we had [the Antunes attack] under control, I thought it would be a nice move to jump too but I went a little bit too early."
A year ago, Team Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski placed a down payment on his eventual overall victory by winning atop the Alto da Fóia, albeit from a much larger group. This time around, only five riders finished within 10 seconds of the stage the new race leader Pogacar, meaning that the general classification battle already seems whittled down to a select cadre of riders with three stages still to come.
"I think last year, from what I understand, there was a headwind whereas this year we had a tailwind and a little bit from the side as well in the end so I think that maybe also makes it a little bit different," said Poels.
"It was quite a hard finish and it was also hard before when we had the twisty roads coming into the climb but the team were riding together with QuickStep, so that was really good. On the final climb we were just controlling, and the boys did a really amazing job. Unfortunately, I went a little bit early but we still did a good job for the GC."
In the overall standings, Pogacar carries a lead of one second over Poels into Friday's 20km time trial in Lagoa, while Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is third overall at 3 seconds and Sam Oomen (Sunweb) a further two seconds back in 5th. However the time trial plays out, the race should still be in the balance come the explosive climb to the Alto da Malhão on Sunday.
"Tomorrow is another big test again and then there's Sunday," Poels said. "I really like that climb."
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