Dylan van Baarle stopped beyond the finish line in Harelbeke, hunched over his bars, and launched into a coughing fit. Like so many in the pro peloton, he has had to fight his way back from illness, and while he was in the thick of the action at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, he was a country mile away from victory.
Then again, that was the case for anyone who wasn't wearing a yellow and black jersey. Jumbo-Visma dominated the race to the extent that it seemed like everyone else was competing in an entirely different one.
Wout van Aert claimed the victory, crossing the line alongside his teammate Christophe Laporte, while Van Baarle and his own teammate Jhonatan Narváez had to content themselves with a place in the top 10 from the small group that finished more than 90 seconds in arrears.
"They were just too strong," Van Baarle told Cyclingnews, at a loss for any other explanation.
Ineos Grenadiers were actually put to the sword twice at the race that's often referred to as a dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders.
When Van Aert launched his first attack on the Taaienberg with 80 kilometres to go, they missed the seven-man selection and had to launch a frantic chase.
They found reinforcements as the bunch regrouped behind the leaders and they performed what was effectively a long lead-out into the Eikenberg with 62 kilometres to go, where Narváez and Van Baarle were able to jump across the gap.
"We lost each other a bit on the Hotond going into the Kortekeer," Van Baarle said, explaining the poor positioning for the key moment on the Taaienberg.
"Then you need to try to keep calm – don't try and close it too fast. We waited a bit for the other guys to come back then they closed it. Jonny and I tried to jump and luckily we made it."
With two riders in what turned into a new lead group of 16, Ineos has saved their race, but it was soon lost for good when Van Aert accelerated once more on the Paterberg with 40 kilometres to go. They couldn't follow, and no one could. Van Aert and Laporte were never seen again.
"I even didn't see it. I was just hanging in my frame," Van Baarle said of Van Aert's decisive Paterberg attack.
Likewise, despite the numerical advantage and decent cooperation in the chase group, there was nothing to be done over the final four climbs, nor the run-in to Harelbeke.
"We were not going slow in our group," Van Baarle said. "They were just too strong. They reach a really high level this whole spring already, so it was not really a surprise they were so strong."
Asked whether Jumbo-Visma were so strong as to enter the realms of the unbeatable, Van Baarle said: "Whoa… at the moment they are not beatable, no.
"You need to have some hope, but yeah… We just focus on ourselves, prepare as best as possible and we see where it will bring us. I felt a bit sick after Paris-Nice but then actually last weekend I felt much better again and training was going well."
Ineos Grenadiers can find hope in the prospect of not hitting the key point of the next races on the back foot, along with Tom Pidcock's expected return at Dwars door Vlaanderen next week, but right now they – like everyone else – are playing catch-up.
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