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LE LIORAN, France (CT) – You’d be forgiven for thinking today’s fifth stage of the Tour de France seemed more like a stage deep in the third week. The picturesque mountain views, the breakaway that opened up an advantage of 15 minutes, the stage winner that came from that breakaway – it was all very last-week-of-a Grand-Tour.
But unlike on a mountainous stage deep in the third week of the Tour, today’s stage saw the winner move into the overall lead, and by no small margin.
Part of an early breakaway of nine, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) forged clear of that group with Thomas Ge Dendt (Lotto Soudal) and Andrei Grivko (Astana) for company, before eventually shedding Grivko and then dropping De Gendt.
Van Avermaet rode the last 17km on his own, crossing the line with more than enough time to celebrate and fully appreciate the victory.
“For me it’s a bit strange because most of the time … I cannot enjoy the moment that much because as a sprinter, you only know at the last second if you’re going to win or not,” Van Avermaet said. “This time it was pretty special because you are at the biggest race of the year and you can enjoy the moment. It’s something good.”
Until last year, Greg Van Avermaet had a reputation for being something of an almost-man; a rider consistently around the mark but who was unable to take the next step up and win the big races. That all changed with a stage win at last year’s Tour de France, and continued with victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico.
With his second Tour de France stage victory comes an even bigger honour for Van Avermaet.
“I think the yellow jersey is most important for me,” the Belgian said. “I was happy with the stage win last year, but now another stage win and the yellow jersey? I think it’s once in a lifetime for me and I’m going to enjoy it as much as possible tomorrow.
“If you’re not the best sprinter and not the best time-trialist it’s pretty hard to wear and I’m never going to be on the podium in Paris so it’s good to enjoy this moment.”
But while Van Avermaet currently enjoys a lead of more than five minutes in the general classification, considerable attention is building on those who could fight for the maillot jaune later in the race.
Two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) felt the effects of heavy crashes earlier in the race, losing another 1:21 to his GC rivals. But the plucky Spaniard is showing no signs of abandoning the race.
“It was a very difficult day. I thought I had regained some forces but I paid the toll in the end,” Contador said. “Of course, my two crashes of the first days hurt a lot. I knew it would be difficult. What matters is to recuperate quickly and not to lose morale.
“I didn’t lose the morale, the crowds support me, it’s incredible the support I’m getting. I’m going to do my best and see what I can do.”
Over in the Astana camp, any questions about team leadership appear to have been well and truly settled with Vincenzo Nibali losing nearly nine minutes to his fellow GC contenders. But the Giro d’Italia winner was far from concerned.
“I knew I was coming on this Tour de France to work for my team and for Fabio Aru,” Nibali said. “The legs didn’t work well so I gave up. We said it from the start, Fabio is the one who matters. I already won the Giro and it took a lot of energy.”
For pre-race favourite Chris Froome (Sky), Nibali’s time loss came as something of a surprise: “I would have expected him to be coming here with his A-game,” the defending champion said.
But Froome was less surprised to see Alberto Contador drop further out of contention.
“That’s quite normal after a big crash that he’s had, or a couple big crashes that he’s had,” Froome said. “No one really wants to see that, us included. We’d rather gain time on the mountains on him, not because he’s hurt and injured and suffering.”
Froome currently sits in fifth overall, 5:17 behind Van Avermaet, with the same time as rivals Nairo Quintana (Movistar; seventh), Fabio Aru (Astana; eighth), and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC; 12th). Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha; fourth), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar; third) and Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep; second) each sit a few seconds ahead.
For now, Van Avermaet enjoys a comfortable lead and, barring a crash or other misfortune, will remain in yellow at the end of tomorrow’s sprinter-friendly stage 6. Things get a little trickier for the Belgian from there with three stages in the mountains in the lead-up to the race’s first rest day.
The battle for the Tour de France yellow jersey is just beginning.