Victor Lafay wins stage 3 at Arctic Race of Norway

Victor Lafay (Cofidis) moved into the overall lead at the Arctic Race of Norway after he won the stage 3 summit finish at Skallstuggu. The Frenchman punched his way clear with 2km remaining and he held off the chasing group to win the stage by three seconds from Kévin Vauquelin (Arkéa-Samsic) and Hugo Houle (Israel-Premier Tech).

Cofidis had policed the peloton for much of the afternoon on behalf of overall leader Axel Zingle, though the French squad had multiple options on the category 1 haul to the line. Lafay was prominent once the gradient stiffened, however, tracking a brisk acceleration from Nicola Conci (Alpecin-Deceuninck) with 3.2km remaining before unleashing his own winning move on the most demanding sector of the ascent.

“That climb was really difficult. I knew if I wanted to win, I had to attack on the steepest section,” Lafay said. “Axel told me at the start of the steepest part that I could play my hand because he wasn’t feeling in top shape. So that’s what I did, I attacked on the steepest bit, though it was still a long, long way to the finish.”

Lafay looked a likely stage winner after opening a sizeable gap over his chasers, even if the Lyon native repeatedly checked back over his shoulder to track the progress of the fragmented chasing group, which included climbers of the quality of Quinten Hermans (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), Houle and Nick Schultz (BikeExchange-Jayco).

“I knew I had a good gap. OK, they looked close behind me, but the slopes were steep, so it was a decent gap,” Lafay said. “I told myself to manage my effort and not to go flat out too soon in case I blew up, but in the end, I had lactic acid up to my ears anyway.”

The victory was the second of Lafay’s career after his solo win at Guardia Sanframondi on last year’s Giro d’Italia. It also marked a return to form after illness forced the 26-year-old to abandon his Tour de France debut last month.

“I’m very glad to have won, especially after what I went through at the Tour,” Lafay said. “For three weeks after the Tour, I was struggling, it was hard to train and I had breathing difficulties.”

Saturday’s stage was animated by a four-man break featuring Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), Maurice Ballerstedt (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Tom Wirtgen (Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB) and Håkon Aalrust (Team Coop), who escaped in the opening kilometres.

The quartet established a maximum lead of 5:35 over the peloton, where Cofidis were policing affairs on behalf of overnight leader Alex Zingle. The break led over the climbs of Strugstad, Stene and Reinslia, but their buffer receded over the final 70km of the stage.

With the gap dropping inside a minute, Van der Hoorn and Ballerstedt jumped clear of their erstwhile companions ahead of the final, 5.4km climb to the line, but their late rally was never likely to hold off the chasers.

Van der Hoorn and Ballerstedt had a lead of just a handful of seconds come the base of that climb and they were swept up with 3.5km to go. Mark Donovan (DSM) was the first attacker from the peloton, with Conci later unfurling the acceleration that definitively split the field.

Lafay responded smartly to Conci’s onslaught with 3.2km to go, and the Frenchman then unleashed his winning effort with 2km remaining. By the time he reached the flamme rouge, Lafay already looked to have a winning advantage, though the splintered chasing group closed fiercely in the final 500 metres.

Lafay held on to take the win, three seconds up on Vauquelin, Houle, Sven Erik Bystrom (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) and Carl Fredrik Hagen (Israel Premier Tech), and he inherits the overall lead from his teammate Zingle.

Ahead of Sunday’s finale in Trondheim, Lafay holds a seven-second advantage over Vauquelin with Houle a further two seconds behind in third, though he insisted his teammate Zingle – now 11th at 23 seconds also remained in the hunt.

“He limited the damage very well here, and with the time bonus he took the other day, he’s still in the match for tomorrow,” Lafay said. “I’ve taken the jersey today, but he might get it back tomorrow. The important thing is that we win as a team.”

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