Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) and Wout van Aert (Jumob-Visma) were expected to battle for the stage victory in the Tour de France's Laval time trial, with the Belgian also seemingly within touching distance of the yellow jersey. Yet when the clocks stopped and the time differences were calculated, both missed out and were left disappointed.
The European time trial champion was beaten by Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) by 19 seconds, while van Aert was a more distant fourth at 30 seconds and also remained 30 elusive seconds away from the yellow jersey.
Küng rode a similar pace to Pogačar in the final third of the 27.2 kilometre course but the Slovenian super-kid was half a kilometre an hour faster on the more technical early section and the final kilometres up through the centre of Laval to the finish line.
Küng had set the fastest time and was in the hot seat when Pogačar beat his time, his facial expression of surprise and disappointment speaking louder than words.
“I had a good performance, that's what I wanted, but it wasn't enough," said Küng. "I managed my ride well but I was beaten by a stronger rider,” he later explained as he headed back to his hotel and Pogačar climbed onto the stage winner’s podium.
“My radio stopped working after the second intermediate point but it didn't cost me 18 seconds.”
Van Aert also struggled to find answers. He was targeting the stage and the yellow jersey but ended the day just with disappointment.
"I gave it my all and I didn't make any mistakes, but I didn't have the legs I hoped for," the Belgian time trial champion said.
"In the opening stages of the weekend I wasn’t good enough to fight for the win but I gave everything to lose as little time as possible with a view of taking the yellow jersey. I’d really worked for the stage victory in the past two days, so it’s a shame that I missed both goals."
Van Aert was on superb form at last year’s Tour de France, impressing with his multitude of talents. He won the Belgian time trial title the weekend before the Tour de France began in Brest but had not been at his very best due to an appendicitis operation disrupting and delaying his Tour de France training.
"You needed really good legs for that to go over the limit every time on the rolling course and then to recover after every effort. I didn't have that today. I’d hoped to be close to the stage win, but I was far from it.”
Van Aert could only praise stage winner Pogačar and eternal rival Van der Poel for the way he defended the yellow jersey.
"I might not have thought that he would be the big favourite but nobody can call Pogačar a surprise now," said Van Aert.
"It may have been the first time trial where Mathieu goes full gas and he appears to be in great shape too."
Van Aert’s 30-second deficit leaves out of reach a shot at the yellow jersey before the mountain stages in the Alps at the weekend.
"In the sprints I can only get 10 seconds closer with a stage win time bonus and we’ll soon be in the mountains, so I don't think yellow will happen for me now. But I’ll still try to contest the final sprints before the mountains.”
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