A blistering uphill acceleration by Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) on a nominally inoffensive fourth category climb has netted the Belgian star both a remarkable victory in the Tour de France leader's jersey and simultaneously ended his run of successive second places on the race's opening three stages.
After his remarkable 2021 Tour de France, where Van Aert won over Mont Ventoux, in the Saint Emilion time trial and on the Champs-Elysées, it was hard to imagine he could surprise cycling fans with an even greater display of his seemingly boundless versatility in the same race.
But on the seemingly straightforward ascent of the Côte du Cap Blanc-Nez at the end of stage 4, a sustained acceleration by Jumbo-Visma proved otherwise.
After his three second places on the three preceding stages, it almost felt like poetic justice that, rather than Primož Roglič or Jonas Vingegaard, Van Aert was the last segment of the yellow-and-black coloured rocket to blast off, some 500 metres from the summit. And even if he only ever had a maximum lead of 30 seconds on the ten undulating kilometres that followed, the Belgian never looked as if he was flagging en route to the seventh Tour win of his career.
As Van Aert recounted afterwards, "the plan was really made long before the Tour had started, because if you looked at the course, it was quite demanding, always up and down. So the aim was to try for both the GC and for the green jersey.
"There were 50 points at finish line and maybe with bit more wind, we'd have tried something for Jonas and Primož. But we knew that hitting the climb hard was good for both goals."
Van Aert remains in yellow for a third straight day, with a strengthened advantage of 25 seconds over Yves Lampaert (AlphaVinyl-QuickStep), while his lead in the green jersey – his main goal in this race – is now 61 points over his closest adversary, Fabio Jakobsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck). At the corresponding point last year, eventual winner Mark Cavendish had a lead of just seven points.
Winning a stage, no matter whether in yellow or green, was not something that Van Aert ever believed was beyond his possibilities, even though he understandably said before leaving Denmark his run of second places had produced "mixed feelings."
"I think maybe in the whole world, I was the person who was most patient and confident that victory would come," he said.
"In Denmark, it was nice to do what I did, but to be second in first two bunch sprints was not expected either, because they were quite easy stages.
"I knew everything this week suited me better. So of course, I was motivated to win in this jersey. It was really special day for me and it's going to be something I'll remember for quite a long time."
'The yellow jersey gave me wings'
Van Aert flapped his arms as if to mimic flying on crossing the line. “It was my way of saying the yellow jersey gave me wings," he explained. And after fending off a peloton for 10km by himself, it was hard to disagree with that. But when describing how Jumbo-Visma had hatched the opportunity, Van Aert paid tribute to his teammates for how they had helped incubate the day's success.
"Like he's done so often this year in the spring, Nathan van Hooydonck put us in front and he did the first part of climb so hard that he showed this again that he is one of the few guys in bunch that can go like that.
"Then when Tiesj Benoot took over, I was on the limit, the whole bunch was on the limit, and the plan was to go full to the top to see what happened.
"I did not expect to end up alone of course, but I saw Jonas was behind me with one other guy [Adam Yates].
"So quite quickly I got a call that it was safe with other GC guys for me to go for the stage victory. It was still a long way though."
While Van Aert responded with a rather laconic, "I would have turned around and helped Primož of course," when asked if he would have continued had the word come through that either of the Jumbo-Visma GC racers was struggling, the question of how the Dutch team plan to organise all the different goals in their book remains an interesting one.
Speaking before the stage, Van Aert's teammate Christophe Laporte argued clearly that Vingegaard and Roglič's yellow jersey was the priority ahead of Van Aert's green in the Paris-Roubaix-like stage on Wednesday. But, along with increased admiration for his talents, Van Aert's strengthened hold on yellow has increased the speculation, too.
"It's always hard to predict how the stage will go, and it's important for Jonas and Primoz to stay out of trouble," Van Aert answered when asked about the team’s priorities on Wednesday. "But we'll go into this with a lot of confidence and see it as an opportunity to try something on GC. We have a lot of Classics riders in the team, so we are looking forward to doing a stage like this, and we'll look after them."
Apart from the morale-boost a Tour de France stage win represents for any squad, Jumbo-Visma also have the added bonus of being the first of the GC teams in the race to hit a bullseye. But ultimately the day belonged to Van Aert, who even received a tribute from no less a figure than Bernard Hinault, now reconverted from his prior role at ASO into a straight-talking French TV analyst.
"He's always there, he does a great race, and I like his style because he's a maillot jaune who doesn't ask himself questions, he attacks," Hinault said.
"He's in cyclo-cross, he's in the Classics, he's in the Tour, he's everywhere - he's part of the new generation of racers.”
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.