Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing) did not expect to strike gold in the hills of the Massif Central, telling our Belgian correspondent Brecht Decaluwé that if he could handle the climbs, then so could Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), who would retain the yellow jersey. Yet after five-and-a-half hours of determined and aggressive racing, the Belgian rider proved himself wrong and ended the day with a marvellous stage victory and the yellow jersey.
Van Avermaet rode into Le Lioran alone and was able to savour the appreciation of the crowd as he crossed the line. The cheers and admiration of the crowds and Van Avermaet’s pride and satisfaction were the same when he pulled on the yellow jersey on the podium for the first time in his career. He now leads the Tour de France by 5:11 on Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) and should be able to stay in yellow until the race climbs into the Pyrenees on Friday.
Going on the attack and winning when you know a stage profile does not suit you takes guts and guile. Van Avermaet had plenty of both during the 216km stage.
The Belgian is a Classics rider, with a fast sprint finish but knows how to suffer – when on the attack or when he fights gravity on the climbs. He reminded everyone of previous attacks on mountain stages, including 2014 when he was in the break of the day in the Pyrenees to Luchon, only to be beaten by Michael Rogers.
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This time he raced the stage as if it was a Spring Classic – his preferred terrain. After a number of early attacks he fought to be part of the nine-rider break that got away. When the peloton was unable or unwilling to control them, Van Avermaet began to smell victory. Realising that that Rafa Majka (Tinkoff) and others in the move were not doing their fair share of the work on the front and were perhaps having a bad day, he attacked with Thomas De Gent to expose their weaknesses and to further distance the peloton.
He quickly distanced the Pole and eventually Grivko and then De Gendt – with 17km to go. He managed to gain enough time on the now aggressive peloton, making Movistar’s efforts largely in vain. He finished alone, savouring victory like he has rarely done before. Every moment of his and the BMC’s celebration was well deserved.
Stephen Farrand: In France they say ‘chapeau!’ – raising their hats as a sign of respect and praise and everyone watching the Tour de France on Wednesday plus the other riders in the race, could only dough their caps as a sign of respect for Greg Van Avermaet’s solo victory in Le Lioran. He won the hard way – alone, after going in s break for 200km and dropping his rivals with a display of tactical riding.
Van Avermaet has already won his Belgian power struggle with Philippe gilbert for the role of team leader for the Classics at BMC. Now he has given the US-registered team a huge boost as questions arose about its long-term future. Now the team can enjoy at least a day in the yellow jersey and enter the Pyrenees with the pressure of the sometimes delicate shoulders of its overall contenders Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte.
With the Rio Olympic Road race just a month away, the stage victory also showed that Van Avermaet is also a contender on the hilly course of the one-day race. It is far tougher than a spring Classics but then Van Avermaet has once again proven that he is far more than just a Classics rider.