The uphill finish on stage 3 of Paris-Nice seemed tailor-made for Wout van Aert, but the Jumbo-Visma rider could only doff his cap to Mads Pedersen and admit he was roundly beaten by the Trek-Segafredo leader.
On a slightly disappointing afternoon for Jumbo-Visma, race leader Christophe Laporte crashed in the final kilometre, although he retained the yellow jersey.
Van Aert had showcased his form as Jumbo-Visma showcased their collective strength with a stunning 1-2-3 on the opening day that was won by Laporte and also involved overall captain Primoz Roglic. Van Aert was beaten into second place on stage 2 by Fabio Jakobsen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) but the stage 3 finish - 2km at 3.5 per cent - tipped the scales in his favour.
Jakobsen and the other pure sprinters had in fact been ridden out of contention on the hilly ground before they even arrived at the final kilometre, where, despite being caught down the pack, Van Aert was piloted by Laporte onto the wheel of Pedersen.
The former world champion hit out from range, with 250 metres to go, at which point Van Aert was licking his lips. But he was never able to draw close to Pedersen, and had to settle for third as Bryan Coquard (Cofidis) nipped around in the closing metres.
"He started really early and he was apparently strong enough to keep it to the line. It’s a really impressive sprint from him and I was not strong enough to give him competition," Van Aert stated at the finish.
"He’s a strong rider and a specialist in hard finishes like this. He started the sprint, in my opinion, really, really early and at that point I thought it would be in my favour, but he could hold it to the line… Strong."
Van Aert’s latest helping of four bonus seconds moved him closer to the overall lead but the yellow jersey remains on the shoulders of his teammate Laporte despite a late crash.
As Jasper Steven was leading out the sprint for Pedersen, there was a touch of wheels several positions back, and Laporte hit the deck, ripping the right-hand side of his shorts. He remounted and crossed the line shaking his head, although he was awarded the same time as the rest of the bunch given the incident occurred within the final 3km.
“It’s nothing serious, but it’s never fun to crash,” Laporte said at the finish.
"In the final we lost ourselves a bit on the descent. We found ourselves again but weren’t in a great position. In order to move back up we had to hit the wind. I didn’t have super legs today. I placed Wout in the wheel of Mads, but we and he had to make an effort to get back there so maybe that’s what was lacking in the final."
Jumbo-Visma still occupy the first three positions on the general classification, with Laporte leading Van Aert by one second and Roglic by nine seconds. That is set to change on Wednesday, with the 13.4km time trial representing a big day for the overall contenders ahead of the hillier stages.
With no GC rivals within 20 seconds, Roglic is in a great position, while Van Aert could in theory take the yellow jersey from the shoulders of his teammate. Laporte is no slouch against the clock and has won short time trials in the past, but Van Aert is the stronger on paper, although he also pointed out the presence of former world champion Rohan Dennis as another contender in black and yellow.
"I’ll just try to be the first one of my team, then I’ll be happy," he said. “There is Christophe and also a guy called Rohan Dennis and Primoz Roglic."
Another Jumbo-Visma 1-2-3 is hardly beyond the realms of possibility.
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.