Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) admitted that the strongest rider won on stage 6 of the Tour de France, when Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) skipped away on the toughest slopes of the Col de la Lusette and eased away from the remnants of the early break.
Until that point, Van Avermaet remained in contention but the Olympic champion was forced to yield as the Astana rider moved clear alongside Neilson Powless (EF Pro Cycling). While Lutsenko went on to claim his maiden Tour stage win, Van Avermaet at least managed to claim third on the stage, one place behind Jesús Herrada, who overtook the Belgian on the penultimate climb.
The 191km stage to Mont Aigoual was set up for the breakaway and, after the relative go-slow on stage 5, there was no shortage of riders willing to jump into Thursday’s break. However, being willing and being able to are two different things, and it took a huge effort from Nicholas Roche to go clear in the opening kilometres of racing. The Irishman was joined by riders in their ones and twos before an eight-rider group formed.
Roche was joined by Powless, Edvald Boasson Hagen (NTT), Daniel Oss (Bora-hansgrohe), Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Van Avermaet, Herrada and Lutsenko to create the most star-studded break of the Tour so far. The leaders had to fight tooth and nail in the opening hour, partly because Van Avermaet was only a shade over three minutes off Adam Yates’ yellow jersey, but also because a number of teams had missed out on the action, but the leaders eventually built up a healthy six-minute lead.
"I think that it was a good day to try something," Van Avermaet said at the finish.
"I was still close on GC so I just gave it a go on the uphill start. It was super hard and we had a super hard break. I just gave it a chance and gave everything that I had but Lutsenko was super strong, especially on the steep part. I couldn’t find my rhythm there and it was hard to catch up with him."
Van Avermaet confided that he had ridden the final two climbs during a recent vacation, and that he knew the parcours would suit the break rather than the GC contenders, who were more interested in waiting for this weekend’s double-header in the Pyrenees.
"I’ve been here on vacation so I knew how the climb was and I knew that if I survived the steeper part it might be a good climb for me. In the end, it was good to be out front there," he said.
"The way we started, with the names we had in the break, nothing was for free. It was one of the strongest breaks I’ve ever been in. With this sort of finish, it’s one where you never stop, and you always keep on going. We had a bit of an advantage on the GC guys because they are still waiting because on a climb like this a GC guy cannot make a big difference. When I saw Lutsenko, Herrada and Roche there I knew that it wouldn’t be easy but from a long break, it’s different. I just gave my best."
Van Avermaet now has a fourth and third-place finish to his name in the Tour, and while some riders would be happy with that return, the 35-year-old is likely to pinpoint a number of other opportunities before the race reaches Paris. It might be worth asking where else the CCC rider has been on vacation.
"I’m happy because the strongest guy won and I didn’t make any mistakes. I’ve no problems with that," he said.
"I knew that if I survived the first category climb I had a chance to win and that’s the card that I played. I was hoping when the gap was six minutes because you want to make the best of it."
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