Lotto Soudal's Tim Wellens will be clad in the Tour de France's famous white-and-red polka-dot jersey when stage 4 gets under way in Reims on Tuesday morning. The Belgain took over the lead in the mountains classification from compatriot Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) after featuring in the day's breakaway on stage 3 on Monday, and was only caught on the final climb by eventual stage winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
"It wasn't the initial plan for me to go on the attack," Wellens revealed on his team's website. "Thomas De Gendt was supposed to try to go in the breakaway, but he doesn't get given a lot of space. After all these years, the other teams have of course got to know him.
"But I only had to try once, and I was already in the right breakaway of the day. My fellow escapees and I worked well together, and we built up an advantage of six minutes quite easily.
A few kilometres into the 215km third stage between Binche and Epernay, Wellens was away with Stephane Rossetto (Cofidis), Wanty-Gobert's Yoann Offredo, Anthony Delaplace (Arkea-Samsic) and Total Direct Energie's Paul Ourselin. They collaborated well until Wellens decided to ditch the company and continue solo in the last 45km.
"When the peloton started accelerating, I decided that I had to attack because the tempo in the breakaway wasn't high enough," he explained. "So I attacked at 45 kilometres from the finish line, because I knew I was the strongest rider up front."
Wellens admitted that another reason to go it alone was to try to take the points for the polka-dot jersey – which he just about managed to do, on the one category-4 climb and the three category-3 climbs that followed – although it was a close-run thing on the Côte de Mutigny, on which Alaphilippe attacked in pursuit of Wellens.
"At one moment I started believing there could be more," he said, meaning that he'd started to believe that he might have been able to hold on for the stage victory. "But the peloton started picking up the pace, and the idea of winning started to become a lot more difficult.
"Then, at the foot of the last climb, I had a flat tyre, so I had to stop. Luckily, I'd been able to get those last two points for the polka-dot jersey, but following Alaphilippe and going for a better result was no longer possible."
He admitted that, even without his puncture, trying to keep pace with the flying Alaphilippe would have been tough.
"That being said, I'm very happy with the polka-dot jersey. There will be no danger of losing it tomorrow [Tuesday]," said the 28-year-old, with stage 4 from Reims to Nancy being a flat affair, which should come down to a bunch sprint, in which he will hope his Lotto Soudal teammate Caleb Ewan can feature.
"On Wednesday and Thursday, there are a lot more mountains points to win, and so then it will depend on whether I can be in the breakaway again, and try to keep the jersey a bit longer."