Ever since starting the Tour de France there were high hopes among the Belgian fans that Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), their cyclo-cross king and up-and-coming road star, would be able to win a stage and get the yellow jersey. After teammate Mike Teunissen won the opening stage, and the team's victory in the team time trial, it was Van Aert's turn to shine when Teunissen cracked in a tough finale on stage 3. Enter Julian Alaphilippe. Bye-bye yellow.
The Deceuninck-QuickStep rider binned Jumbo-Visma's plans for a sprint up the final climb and reached the finish line solo, nearly half a minute ahead of Van Aert. In the general classification, Alaphilippe now leads by 20 seconds over Van Aert and five more over teammates Steven Kruijswijk and George Bennett. Making up the gap on Alaphilippe seems impossible with a pure sprinter's stage and a quite hilly finish in Colmar before the first major summit finale to La Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday.
"Tomorrow is likely going to finish in a bunch sprint, and the day after that is going to be very hard," best young rider Van Aert said while talking in the mixed zone at the finish in Épernay. "In an ideal scenario, it's still possible, but I'm not going to come as close as I did today. I'm back with my feet on the ground and I feel like I should be very happy with what I'm wearing now.
"I'm half happy. Mike didn't feel well in the finale, and he came up to me to say that I was free to go for it. The team would play my card. Obviously, I already saw myself taking on the maillot jaune. The climbs ended up being much steeper than I expected, and in the end Alaphilippe ruined it for me. He was very strong and deserved the victory," a downcast Van Aert said.
When Alaphilippe attacked on the Côte de Mutigny more than 16km from the finish, it was obvious that Jumbo-Visma would try to chase him down. Not only Alaphilippe attacked, but also Michael Woods (EF Education First), Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) and Mikel Landa (Movistar) jumped away from the peloton.
"Alaphilippe was gone and also a few other strong guys attacked on the climb," Van Aert said. "We planned to chase them because the sprint would suit me. For Steven, it was good that riders like Landa weren't offered too much space. We moved to the front but there weren't many other teams to support us. Laurens [De Plus] and Georges did what they could but they probably blew up their engines in trying to bring him back. Everybody did what they could. We didn't give up. Alaphilippe was too strong. Only Ineos was left to take over and then I knew it was over for the yellow jersey because they just wanted to bring their leaders safely to the finish."
In the sprint for second place, Van Aert failed to leave a lasting impression and he finished ninth on the scoreboard.
"My sprint wasn't fantastic, but in my mind, I had already lost," he said.
"We had a great weekend behind us, but from tomorrow on, we're focusing back on the original plans: the general classification for Steven Kruijswijk and the sprints for Dylan Groenewegen. He recovered well from his crash in the opening stage, and tomorrow we'll work for him to chase the breakaway down."