Thursday's stage 6 at the Tour de France was probably the last chance for Quick-Step Floors to take back the yellow jersey but none of the three riders within ten seconds of race leader Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) were able to match stage winner Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) on the 2km final climb of the Mûr de Bretagne.
Stage favourite Julian Alaphilippe came into the stage only six seconds down on Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert trailed by three, and Bob Jungels, the team's GC rider, was an outsider at nine seconds. Alaphilippe proved to be the team's best finisher, three seconds behind the solo winner, but he missed out on the time bonus with fourth place, while Van Avermaet finished in the same time to keep the maillot jaune. Gilbert and Jungels trailed in with a group 12 seconds behind Martin.
Shortly after crossing the finish line, Alaphilippe didn't seem to be in a good mood but the young French rider's mood changed as he was waiting for the doping control with a cool beer he happily received. His quest for the yellow jersey came to an end on Thursday as the three upcoming stages suit the sprinters and the pavé specialists.
"It's always a dream. It was a dream to be so close but now it's the way it is. It's never easy at the Tour de France. You needed to have the legs to win today and I didn't have them. They're good, but not exceptional. I hope they improve," Alaphilippe said. "Now I hope to recover. Voila, and be good on the more difficult stages, help Bob in the mountains, get in a few breaks. I had up until today to give my all, but now things will be different."
The 26-year-old explained how the finale unfolded for him: "It was very, very nervous on the last kilometres before the last ascent. There were lots of crashes and I avoided a few of them. It was important to be well positioned, and that's what I did," Alaphilippe said.
Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe) made a fierce acceleration in the first part of the climb. Alaphilippe was quick to move onto the Italian's wheel but in hindsight, he felt that might have been a mistake. "On the climb, honestly I maybe made an error going in the wheel of Daniel Oss – that put me a bit in the red. After that, I struck out, but it was difficult all the way to the line. That's how it is."
Maybe the pressure of being the top favourite was a disadvantage. "I needed to do something. It's an effort that suits me well. I didn't feel very at ease, not 100 per cent, unfortunately, and that shows." Just before hitting the final kilometre, Dan Martin made a strong acceleration that caught many by surprise. "I hesitated a bit but honestly, he [Dan Martin] was very, very strong. I'm happy for him."
Belgian veteran Philippe Gilbert also felt that the yellow jersey was now out of reach for him, even though he's only 12 seconds from the lead. "Maybe in 2019 but this year it'll be complicated. Twelve seconds is a massive amount. Don't dream about it. Dream at night but not during the daytime," Gilbert joked.
"Today there's disappointment but it's not like I lost five minutes. I wasn't 100 per cent but in the Tour de France you immediately pay for that." Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) is picking up bonus seconds whenever he can do it with ease. It also happened on Thursday, shortly before the final ascent of the Mûr de Bretagne. "It's a bit surprising because I don't think Team Sky is targeting the yellow jersey. It's a bit surprising but it's his choice," Gilbert said.
The next goal for Gilbert will be the stage with finish in Roubaix but he didn't know what to expect from it, apart from it being hectic and dusty. "It'll be a difficult and complicated stage. We've got a strong team so it's possible to win. It'll be special because of the dust. Behind the front of the race, there will be no visibility. It'll probably remind me of the Paris-Roubaix edition I rode in 2007. You couldn't see anything. It was very special."
Gilbert also looked back on a typical Quick-Step Floors move that occurred halfway through the stage. The team's riders gathered en masse near the front when the race turned into a crosswinds section, trying to create echelons in the peloton. A few GC riders were caught by surprise, including Jakob Fuglsang, Vincenzo Nibali, Dan Martin, Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and especially Primoz Roglic.
"The wind was a major factor all day, that was obvious. We talked with Tom [Steels] through the race radio and he said there was the possibility to set up an echelon. We had Sky with us. We tried but sadly enough, a little further there was more protection against the wind in the forest and it wasn't possible to maintain the rhythm," Gilbert said. Most of the GC riders quickly returned in the peloton, although Roglic and his LottoNL-Jumbo teammates needing to work hard for that.
In contrast to Alaphilippe's eager way of racing on the finishing climb, Gilbert took a more conservative approach. He probably felt straight away that getting the win would be a challenge. "The ascent went very fast. It's quite a special effort. It's about three to four minutes at full gas. It's difficult. I expected more from the last climb. I decided to let go a bit of the other because I wanted to climb on my own rhythm, hoping to relaunch on the more rolling section but I was unable to accelerate. Then there were a few splits and then it was over," Gilbert said.