Through seven stages of the Tour de France, Lotto Soudal had been one of the most active teams in the race. Up to the start of stage 8 in Mâcon, five days in the polka dot jersey for Tim Wellens and three podium places for sprinter Caleb Ewan was the sum of their efforts.
It's more than most teams have achieved, but in Saint-Étienne it was Thomas De Gendt who delivered what the team were aiming for – a stage victory. Attacking from the gun, the Belgian was joined by three other breakaway specialists on the tough 200-kilometre stage through the Massif Central.
One-by-one, Ben King (Dimension Data), Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Énergie) and Alessandro De Marchi (CCC Team) dropped away, leaving De Gendt, who led over all seven categorised climbs, to hold off late attackers Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and take the fourth Grand Tour stage victory of his career.
"I would put this above Ventoux," De Gendt said after the stage, referring to his 2016 Tour stage win atop the fabled mountain.
"[Today] it's 200 kilometres and fighting against the bunch and winning with five or six seconds. Of course, the Stelvio [where he won at the 2012 Giro d'Italia] is something else. It's 200 kilometres and more mountains, but I would dare to put this at number one."
The win came at the second time of asking for De Gendt, who was in the break on stage 6 to La Planche des Belle Filles too. He had attempted to get away on stage 3 but was marked by Jumbo-Visma, the Dutch team keen to preserve their race lead.
It says something about De Gendt's abilities that even on flatter stages he's a threat.
"I think in the first stages there was a bit more of a chance that there would be a sprint," he said. "The guys like Matthews, Sagan, Colbrelli could survive those climbs a bit easier than today's, so I understand why they didn't let breaks go, but that's cycling.
"I'm happy that they let me go today."
It was a stage perfectly suited to De Gendt, who often trains in Calpe, Spain. He said in the post-race press conference that the abundance of 20- to 30-minute climbs in the area mimicked the efforts he had to put in today.
"They're perfect for me, and it's hard to chase on climbs like this. If you have six climbs like this then there's almost no team who can put two or three guys on the front of the bunch to try and reduce the gap.
"If we ride 420 watts, then they can't keep pushing 450. That's just impossible. That's why I always pick stages like this – because they just suit me the best."
De Gendt was out front among an almost-handpicked group of breakaway men but proved the strongest after distancing the last of them – De Marchi – on the final climb of the day, the Côte de Jaillère. Afterwards, he had only complimentary things to say about his last companion.
"I really like De Marchi. He's a really good rider," he said. "He doesn't think, doesn't calculate; he just goes, like me. That's the best guy you can have – if you have ten guys in the break [like that], you will never catch them.
"It's a pity that he didn't have legs in the end, because it would have been nice to sprint for victory against him, but I think his moment will come. If I had more guys like De Marchi [in breakaways], I would stay away more times."
This stage victory was exactly what Lotto Soudal set out to do at the Tour, after a series of ever-closer near-misses by Ewan. De Gendt spoke about the positive atmosphere around the team, adding that many teams have a bare Tour de France palmarès in comparison.
"Last year we didn't really compete in the sprints, but now we are really close with Caleb three times," he said. "The atmosphere is still good because we are here with eight guys with good legs.
"We were trying to find ways to win and trying to find ways to make it better in the sprints, but we always have confidence in Caleb. I'm sure that he will win a stage and the atmosphere will stay good in the team."
De Gendt's 15th career victory will only have raised spirits in the Lotto Soudal camp, and going by the team's first eight stages, there should be even more to come over the next two weeks.
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