In years to come, Thomas De Gendt will be the answer to a pub quiz question: who won the stage the day Chris Froome started running up Mont Ventoux on the Tour de France? Like Julio Jimenez on the Puy de Dome in 1964 or Luc Leblanc at Les Arcs in 1996, the Lotto Soudal rider's victory on stage 12 is destined to be a footnote in history, forever eclipsed by the drama further behind him on the road.
That much was already apparent as De Gendt traipsed through the mixed zone at Chalet Reynard afterwards and found himself answering as many questions about Froome's crash – caused when a television motorbike braked to avoid fans spilling onto the road – as he did about his own duel with fellow Belgian Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data).
"I don't know what happened, I just saw it on TV. There were a lot of people in the last kilometre," De Gendt said. "They should think of doing something about it. I got pushed, Serge got pushed, and we almost crashed. There wasn't even room for one moto."
The headlines in Friday morning's newspapers will all be for Froome, the race organisers and the commissaires, but like a Shakespearean play, the Tour's seemingly minor characters warrant closer study. De Gendt, for one, seemed unsure of his own role as the day began. With high winds buffeting the race on the long, flat run to the base of Mont Ventoux, he looked to enter the early break simply as an insurance policy against falling foul of the time limit.
"Normally these are the stages I'm most afraid of with the time limit, and with the wind, I was afraid the peloton would break into echelons and I'd be in the last group before we got to the climb," De Gendt said. "But usually when I'm nervous about the time limit, I win. So hopefully I can do it a few more times in future."
By the time the escapees reached the bottom of Mont Ventoux, it was already clear that the stage winner would come from their number, particularly given that the finish line was brought forward by six kilometres to Chalet Reynard due to the expected 100kph winds at the summit. De Gendt had teammate André Greipel for company in the move, and the German looked to facilitate him by attacking before the climb began in earnest.
"He didn't tell me he was going to attack, but I knew his plan was to get other guys working, especially because Dani Navarro (Cofidis) had a teammate in the group too, and you could see he was strong," De Gendt said. "It was a good attack from André. He brought me bottles all day too, and did most of the pulling in the group. I did my work, but he did a little more for me."
Once the gradient began to bite on the way through the forest, the strongmen of the group duly came to the fore, and only De Gendt, Pauwels and Navarro remained at the front with four kilometres remaining. An acceleration from De Gendt was enough to shake Navarro loose, but on three occasions Pauwels inched back up to him, refusing to give up the ghost.
Inside the final kilometre, the two Belgians rode side by side, seemingly locked in conversation, but their parley was abandoned when Navarro appeared at their shoulders within sight of the finish. De Gendt opened his finishing effort from distance and his slow-motion sprint – against the gradient and the wind – was enough to win the day, and earn him the polka dot jersey to boot.
"We were talking about Navarro because we didn't see him with the cars and motos, we wanted to know where he was and suddenly he was there. That's what it was all about," De Gendt said of his long exchange with Pauwels. "But it was already the last half kilometre by then and we could sprint for the line."
The win was De Gendt's second at a Grand Tour following his triumph atop the Stelvio on the penultimate stage of the 2012 Giro d'Italia, a victory that lifted him onto the final podium in Milan as the surprise third-place finisher. Though he acknowledged that a Tour stage win will make for a more impressive line on his palmarès, that solo raid at the Giro will inspire warmer memories.
"This is the Tour, it's the biggest race of the year, so for my career, this is the biggest victory but the stage on Stelvio was emotionally bigger," De Gendt said. "It was my first big victory and that victory took me to the podium of Giro, so I'd place them both on the highest step."
De Gendt dedicated his victory to his teammate Stig Broeckx, who is in a vegetative state after being injured at the Tour of Belgium when two in-race motorbikes crashed into the peloton. As the Froome incident – which mercifully had no serious consequence – again demonstrated, measures to improve rider safety in a tangible manner are some way short of being enacted.
"We're going to celebrate this evening not with a big party but in silence, because we also think about Stig," De Gendt said. "We celebrate in silence."
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