A defiant Team Sky came out, guns blazing, in the Paris-Nice individual time trial from La Fouillouse to Saint Etienne, swatting away any suggestions of battered morale, as the storm over Monday's DCMS report continues.
In what was perhaps the best time trial performance of his career, Chris Froome's climbing lieutenant, Wout Poels, took his first WorldTour time trial stage win to move to within 15 seconds of the overall lead with teammate and defending champion Sergio Henao also turning in a powerful performance.
Afterwards, a smiling Poels shrugged off questions about ethics, team morale and the pressure of performing in the current climate. The 30-year-old seemed unconcerned by the furore in Britain over the DCMS report into doping in sport which accused Team Sky of unethical behaviour.
"I am just focused on my training and racing," Poels said. "Of course, I support Dave and the team. I hope everything is resolved quickly and we move on."
Poels also made it clear that, in the event of the Froome salbutamol case being decided before the Giro and leading to a ban for the four-time Tour champion, he'd be ready to assume leadership duties. "I'm ready to lead the team," Poels said. "We all want to solve this as quickly as possible, especially Chris. But I hope we start the Giro together."
Overnight race leader Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) ceded the best part of half a minute to stage winner Poels, but with Henao also now in contention, it is Team Sky who, with David de la Cruz also a little more than half a minute down, will have the best hand to play, as the race heads towards the climbs of Provence and the Cote d'Azur.
On a grey afternoon in St Etienne, punctuated by drizzle, Team Sky shone, while French favourites Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) and Tony Gallopin (AG2R La Mondiale) struggled, as both riders misjudged tricky aspects of a rolling course with few demanding climbs but plenty of technical sections.
Gallopin lost over a minute to Poels, but Alaphilippe recovered his composure after getting more than one bend wrong, to finish third on the stage, within 16 seconds of the flying Dutchman, and keeping his hopes of taking back time on the climbs of Provence and the Cote d'Azur alive.
In truth, and although Sanchez has won Paris-Nice before, in 2009, the Spaniard's leadership of his Astana team is a little unexpected, forced by the circumstances of the race.
"Fulgsang is the designated leader," Sanchez acknowledged. "He's not lost a lot of time, and Jakob is a great champion who won't give up. I will fight and give the maximum to hold onto the yellow jersey. Poels seems to be the big favourite, but there are many riders who can challenge and I have to pay attention to all them."
The fifth stage of the Race to the Sun is from Salon-de-Provence to Sisteron and mid-stage, includes the first category Col de Lagarde d'Apt, and also the third category climb of the Cote de la Marquise, 13 kilometres from the finish. Both may prove to be platforms for tester attacks, from Alaphilippe, Bahrain-Merida's Izagirre brothers or Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), now 42 seconds down on Sanchez.
Poels, winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2016 and sixth overall in last year's Vuelta a España, has the climbing track record to suggest that he will steal into the overall lead on the way to Nice. In fact, his closest challenger now, with the biggest climbs to come, is likely to be teammate Henao, recent winner of the Colombian road race title. Based on today's performances, neither rider is letting the hothouse atmosphere surrounding Sky get to them.
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.