The Tour de France is relentless. It waits for no one and it shows no mercy, but on occasion it can't fail to make those that watch stop in awe and marvel at the beauty of the sport.
On stage 9 we all smiled with John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) as he took a comeback win after several years of hurt. At the finish of La Course we were touched by the raw emotion and sheer joy displayed by Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Cervelo-Bigla), while a few hours later we saw Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) throw caution to the wind and honour the yellow jersey with a gutsy display as the Tour traversed through the Alps. The Belgian may have only finished fourth on the stage, but he defied the odds, more than doubled his lead over Geraint Thomas and secured another yellow jersey, if for only another 24 hours.
Van Avermaet's performance on stage 10 had all the hallmarks of his ride back in 2016, when resplendent in the Tour de France yellow jersey, he went on the attack to Lac de Payolle. It was the first significant uphill test of that year's race, and Van Avermaet, having won the stage two days earlier and taken yellow, was expected to fold as the GC riders took on the Col d'Aspin. However, in a season that later culminated in Olympic gold, Van Avermaet attacked and successfully made it into the day's breakaway. That he survived and finished fifth was a testament to both his growing confidence and his ability to stick with the climbers when it mattered most.
Two years on, and the 33-year-old Belgian was at it again. Heading into the stage, Van Avermaet held a 43-second lead over Geraint Thomas, and the smart money was on Team Sky moving into yellow with five climbs peppered along the stage 10 route. But who needs to teach an old dog like Van Avermaet new tricks when he's so proficient in the ones he's already mastered?
Van Avermaet not only lived with the break as the group built up a seven-minute lead over the peloton, but he out-climbed the likes of Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie), Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ). Julian Alaphilippe attacked from the move and took Quick-Step Fllors' tally in the race to three stages, but Van Avermaet's fourth place was enough to withstand Team Sky's chase and move his lead to Thomas out to 2:22.
"I was hoping for it because two years ago I made kind of the same attack with the yellow jersey," he said in his post-stage press conference.
Aware that he would be dropped and lose his jersey if he simply tried to match Team Sky's march through the Alps, the BMC Racing leader jumped into the main break, and with Team Sky unwilling to chase, the break quickly drew clear.
"Today, I was waiting for the right moment," Van Avermaet said. "I was the last guy to the group, which cost a lot of energy. Afterwards, I felt good on the climbs, and I knew that if they gave me seven minutes then I knew that it would be possible to keep this yellow jersey."
Stage 11 is unlikely to see a repeat performance. The 108km trek to the summit at La Rosiere is destined to see the GC contenders rip the race apart, and not even Van Avermaet's ingenuity is likely to withstand the pressure.
"I think today was a good day, but tomorrow is a super hard day," he said. "In the past, I know that I have a super good day after the rest day and I can go over my limit sometimes, but most of the time I pay it back the next day. I'm not expecting that much tomorrow. There are three mountain climbs, and for me, I think it will be too much. I am really happy to extend one day extra, but I am giving myself a chance of zero for tomorrow."
Van Avermaet has not taken an individual win since May's Tour de Yorkshire, but his spell in yellow easily eclipses anything he has achieved this year. Those days in yellow may not add to the victory tally, but they pad a rider's palmares and are an honor for any rider to enjoy. One more day in the yellow jersey took a huge effort, but the smile on Van Avermaet's face when he finished stage 10 in Le Grand Bornard proved it was worth it.
"I think that this is different to winning a stage," Van Avermaet said. "I try to win stages, that's always been my goal. When you come close on Roubaix and you can't win then I think the yellow jersey is something nice. A leader's jersey on the Tour de France is probably a bit like a stage win. I'm really enjoying every day.
"I have had 11 days in my career, not a lot of Belgian guys have this. I think it is a real honour to ride with it every day, and that's why I try to defend it as well as possible. I also want to be the kind of yellow jersey that shows himself. That's why I tried to attack in Roubaix and I tried to attack today. It's really cool to be in the front with this jersey."
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