A blessing or a curse? Fourth overall and decked out in the white jersey, Enric Mas couldn't have asked for much more from his debut Tour de France as it reaches the high mountains. However, his outlook on the race is refracted by the yellow jersey on the shoulders of his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate, Julian Alaphilippe.
Alaphilippe not only defended his yellow jersey, but won the stage and extended his lead at the top of the overall standings, while Mas produced a strong ride – like at the Vuelta – to place ninth on the stage and jump two places on the GC, divesting Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) of the white jersey for best young rider.
"The evaluation is a very good one. Julian did a really impressive time trial, and I did a good one for what we had in mind. We're happy," Mas told reporters in Pau.
"Now we're in an ideal position to take on what's left of the Tour."
Few can argue with holding the first and fourth positions, but it's not as simple as it sounds. Mas came into the race as Deceuninck-QuickStep's GC leader, but Alaphilippe has soared past anyone's expectations, to the extent that the whispers that he could challenge for the title have grown into full-on rumblings.
Alaphilippe has vowed to fight to hold onto yellow for as long as possible, but where does that leave Mas? He could find his own ambition stifled by having to support the Alaphilippe cause, and even acknowledged as much on Friday.
"I think he can do it until Paris, so we're going to defend it and we're going to try it," Mas said.
"He has been very impressive so far – he won the third stage, he got the jersey, he lost the jersey, he took the jersey again, and today he won the time trial. That's impressive.
"I'm taking it step-by-step. My dream is to be in the top 10 on my first Tour. It's also a dream for me to be in the white jersey. We are in the perfect position now to try to defend the yellow jersey and also the white jersey."
Quite how dedicated Mas will be to Alaphilippe remains to be seen as the Tour takes on its first true high-mountain challenge this weekend, with the summit finishes on the Col du Tourmalet on Saturday and Prat d'Albis on Sunday. It's hard to envisage the Spanish rider waiting to support Alaphilippe if the Frenchman gets dropped, yet Deceuninck-QuickStep only have one other rider – Dries Devenyns – capable of being near the front in the mountains.
"To be honest, I don't think we have to do the work," Mas said. "We only have to try to follow the best. They have to attack, we only have to try to follow.
"The truth is that the difficult part of the Tour starts now. They're really hard days, where you have to be 100 per cent on it. Up until now, it's been about not losing time, being up front. I had the perfect team for the first week, and now we're in an ideal position. On Saturday, the war begins."
It has been said the Tourmalet and Prat d'Albis will provide a definitive assessment of Alaphilippe's prospects at this Tour de France. By extension, the same can be said for Mas.
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