What promised to be a quiet final half-hour for the favourites on stage 16 of the Tour de France on Tuesday suddenly morphed into a short but intense late GC skirmish sparked by Belgian Champion Wout Van Aert.
Riding to protect the interests of Jumbo-Visma teammate and GC contender Jonas Vingegaard as the main bunch rode steadily towards Saint-Gaudens, Van Aert reacted just as Cofidis' Simon Geschke looked to be setting up his teammate Guillaume Martin for a late ambush.
At the same time as Martin looked to be making a move, Van Aert said that information filtered through on his radio that Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) was badly positioned in the peloton.
For both reasons, the Belgian's response to this scenario was to accelerate with Vingegaard on his wheel, reducing the GC group to 15 riders, and then drive all the way to the line.
None of the overall contenders was caught napping. But the sudden flurry of action was a telling sign of how much tension lurks just beneath the surface in the GC group, even on a 'quiet day' like Tuesday.
"Martin was trying to surprise us, so we thought OK, let's give it a try," Van Aert told reporters later as the rain beat down on the finish line on the windswept, exposed hillside on the outskirts of Saint-Gaudens.
"There was not really a plan and it could have gone better. But we felt it was the moment. I'd just heard from Mike [Teunissen, teammate] that Carapaz was a way back, so that was the signal.
"Then in the last part of the course, there were some crosswinds as well. Not much actually happened but at least we showed we're ready."
Van Aert said it had been a tough day throughout, with teammates Teunissen and Steven Kruijswijk briefly losing contact with the front group earlier in the stage.
The Belgian's main mission was to look after Vingegaard and in a situation where he felt time could be taken, Van Aert was quick enough off the mark not to let it pass by.
"The GC riders are all so close together, just a few seconds apart, that we have to take time wherever we can," he explained before heading for a welcome shower in the team bus. "In the end, everybody [on GC] was there in the first group, but it's still good to try."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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