The fifth stage in the 2018 Tour de France on the rolling roads between Lorient and Quimper was expected to be a good chance for the Quick-Step Floors team to get a third victory and potentially the yellow jersey. The roller coaster final kilometre suited punchy fast men. With Philippe Gilbert, Julian Alaphilippe and Bob Jungels, the Belgian team had three strong cards to play. To get that win, the so-called 'wolfpack' would have to fight their way around current race leader Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Sagan ended up being the best poker player. The stage ended in a bunch sprint of 39 riders, and he won ahead of Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Gilbert. Alaphilippe was fifth and Jungels finished as the last rider of the peloton.
"I had a good position in the corners before the last climb, then I was behind and I thought that maybe if I came with some speed I could surprise them, but they were directly on the wheel," Gilbert said, at the finish line in Quimper. His teammate Alaphilippe more or less blew up his engine on the climb and no longer had the legs to sprint.
"I tried to stay with Sagan and Van Avermaet, but I was a bit cooked in the end. I couldn't do anything more," Alaphilippe told L'Equipe.
Gilbert and Alaphilippe ended up being the leaders for the day. At 12 kilometres from the finish line, Alaphilippe won the intermediate sprint for three bonus seconds, while Van Avermaet collected two seconds. It brought Alaphilippe back to four seconds from the race leader. Gilbert was one more second down on Van Avermaet. At the finish, Gilbert would try on the climb and Alaphilippe would wait for the sprint.
At 750 metres from the finish line, Gilbert attacked. His move was marked at first by Julien Simon (Cofidis), Van Avermaet, Colbrelli, Sagan, Alaphilippe, Vincenzo Nilbali and Alajandro Valverde, and a pack with mostly GC-riders. When reaching a plateau, Gilbert continued his effort while Simon blew up his engine. Gilbert had a small gap that Van Avermaet quickly closed back down. Gilbert sat up and tried to reposition. Van Avermaet took over the command before the final corner and started the sprint from far out, at 250 metres.
In the sprint, Gilbert came back out of fifth position and managed to overtake Van Avermaet and Alaphilippe to finish third in Quimper. He collected four bonus seconds and is now only three seconds from Van Avermaet in the GC. Alaphilippe didn't score bonus seconds at the finish line and he's back down to six seconds from Van Avermaet.
"The final was very nervous with the multiple climbs. You had to remain focused. Philippe and I were the dedicated riders for the final of this stage but sadly enough it didn't work out well. Sagan, Van Avermaet and Colbrelli were all very strong. Philippe tried to make the difference because we didn’t want to sprint against each other. He was keen to attack, anticipate and he went really strong. It was a good move," Alaphilipe told L'Equipe before turning his focus to Thursday's stage.
Gilbert wasn't bothered about the result as he only wanted the win. Before the stage, Gilbert talked with the media about his first week. One would expect that he would be happy that the team won two out of four stages but that wasn't the case.
"I think we could've won four stages but I guess we need to be pleased with two wins," Gilbert said in Lorient. At the finish, he repeated that desire to win. "Third or tenth. It's the same. Whenever you lose there are always regrets, but we're at the Tour de France up against the best riders in the world in the best form in the world," Gilbert said.
He didn't have many regrets about making his move on the finishing climb. "I was on a big gear trying to keep the speed but it didn't work. There was a bit of a headwind and I didn't have the legs to hold on to the finish," Gilbert said. He was asked if the climb lacked gradient. "Or I lacked force, one of the two, I don't know. It's a shame. I was actually expecting it to be harder, because when I went the speed was quite hard. They spoke about 12% but I didn't feel that. It was a really fast climb," Gilbert said.
After the finish of stage 5 in Quimper, Gilbert was asked if the team used their two men in the right way. Alaphilippe was also up there in the final but failed to make a move. "People will say we did wrong because we didn't win but I think we did well. I was trying, he was staying in the wheels for a sprint. I was behind him in the last corner and had the feeling he was a little bit close on the barriers on the right and he had to stop pedalling for five or six metres. I think he lost speed there, and that's why I passed him again.
"Julian was perfectly placed on the last corner but for some reason, he was by the barriers there, with 400 metres to go, and he lost some speed there, and when you lose the speed on this kind of finish, it's really hard to get it back again. I did what I had to do, but him and Colbrelli, I think they were just stronger," Gilbert said.
Director sportif Brian Holm was clear when making the analysis. "They are winners, they're here to win, so it's normal they're disappointed," Holm said. When asked if they should've done things differently, the Danish director sportif was thinking out loud.
"Then you'd have had to crash Sagan off his bike, and then we would still have been second after Colbrelli, so what the fuck are we gonna do," he wondered.
On Thursday, Quick-Step Floors will likely challenge the yellow jersey of Van Avermaet once again as the stage finishes up on the 2km long Mûr de Bretagne climb. Van Avermaet knew who he had to mark: "Julian Alaphilippe is the favourite for me."