Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) rescued his season on stage 2 of the Vuelta a España, rediscovering his speed of old to sprint to victory in Utrecht.
The Irishman has had a rough time since being left out of last year's Tour de France and his first season back at Bora-Hansgrohe has seen him a shadow of his former self, left out of the Tour again and nearly suffering the same fate for this Vuelta.
But he roared back to life and justified his selection with a powerful sprint in Utrecht after a strong and well-timed lead-out from Danny van Poppel.
Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) hit out early but had to settle for second place, while pre-race favourite Tim Merlier, whose Alpecin-Deceuninck team had marshalled the day's breakaway in bizarre fashion, started behind Bennett but could never get on terms and finished third.
Race leader Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma) did not finish in the main peloton, which became chopped up in the final few kilometres, and so the red jersey passes over to his teammate Mike Teunissen, who placed fourth on the stage.
After Friday's opening team time trial, the opening road stage was a 175km trip through the Dutch flatlands, with the lack of wind ensuring a bunch finish and a calm day, even if things became messy on the technical run-in to Utrecht.
Ineos had led through the final few bends, before UAE took things up for Pascal Ackermann and then Trek-Segafredo teed up Pedersen, but Van Poppel flew up the middle of the road to slingshot Bennett into the lead.
The 31-year-old opened the taps and outmuscled Pedersen, while Merlier, while boasting the superior results in the past two years, couldn't think about getting out of the slipstream.
"Danny didn't deliver me; he launched me," Bennet said. "He brought me up with speed, then he was kind of ready for me to jump, but I waited a second, and I didn't know if I'd let my speed drop too much, and I was nervous I wouldn't get on top of the speed again.
"It's nice. I knew I'd do it [win a Grand Tour stage] again, it was just a matter of getting the right legs. What I'm really happy about is continuing my pattern of winning at least one stage in every Grand Tour I've done since 2018."
How it unfolded
The riders rolled out of 's-Hertogenbosch and the peloton immediately strung out through the industrial hinterland, although it was only a couple of kilometres before a breakaway formed.
All three Spanish wildcard teams were represented in a group that contained: Julius van den Berg (EF Education-EasyPost), Jetse Bol (Burgos-BH), Xabier Mikel Azparren (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Thibault Guernalec (Arkea-Smasic), and Pau Miquel (Kern Pharma).
They built an early lead of five minutes but it wasn't long before that came tumbling down. Alpecin-Deceuninck hit the front of the bunch and set a strangely strong tempo. The threat of crosswinds didn't seem strong enough to spark any real danger of echelons, while the sole categorised climb of the day with 70km to go didn't provide any real carrot.
Either way, they pressed on, shoulders swaying with the effort, and eradicated the gap to just several seconds with 105km to go. But then they backed off. And then they hit it again. The gap went to 45 seconds and then came down again, as it looked like the Belgian team didn't quite know what to do with the situation. Eventually, their pace setting led to the end of the breakaway with some 60km remaining.
That was partly down to the climb, the hispanified 'Alto de Amerongse', a mere pimple at 2.1km and 2.4%. With no mountains points on the opening stage, and no other climbs on this one, the first to the top would wear the polka-dot jersey on Sunday, and that honour falls to Van den Berg. After he went away in a pre-climb attack, the Dutchman proved the strongest in a relentlessly aggressive ascent.
The breakaway had fought hard to hold off the Alpecin-led peloton to earn the right to contest that climb, but once it had passed, there was relatively little at stake, and motivation to ride hard to defend a gap of less than a minute was understandably low.
With 60km to go, it was all together, and the bunch ambled along for another 15km before Luis Angel Maté (Euskaltel-Euskadi) opened things up again with a solo attack. It was doomed, of course, but it was for a good cause beyond entertainment and sponsor exposure, with the Spaniard vowing to plant a tree for every kilometre he spends in the breakaway at this Vuelta.
After 24 trees were seeded, it was back together again, and the intermediate sprint on the Soesterberg airstrip with 18km to go signalled the final hurdle before the wind-up to the sprint. Pedersen took maximum points, ahead of Bennet's teammate Ryan Mullen.
On the run-in, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, Movistar and Bahrain Victorious held the front positions on the long straight, but things became more technical in the final 5km, with a serious of roundabouts, chicanes, and bends. Ineos Grenadiers took control with Dylan van Baarle and Ben Turner on the front, with Merlier and a lead-out man just behind.
Ineos effectively took it to the final 1500 metres, and then it was over to the lead-out men, with UAE first hitting the front and then Trek paving the path for Pedersen. However, it was Van Poppel who, as Bennett said, launched him to a morale-boosting victory.
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