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The Lotto-Soudal rider attacked the break on a winding descent and established a small gap. Wellens built his lead to 30 seconds and held on for the stage win.
“I couldn’t imagine a better start of the season,” said Wellens. “Before the stage, I had already decided to go into the breakaway. We had a look at the course in the bus beforehand and noticed that the beginning of the stage was marked by hilly terrain, including several technical and wet descents. So, quite a tough stage.”
After the rainy conclusion to stage 2, the sunny skies were a welcome change.
With 80km to go, a sizeable break of 20 with heavy hitters had established a two-and-a-half-minute advantage.
In the break were Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels), Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R-Citroën), Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), Tim Wellens and Philippe Gilbert (Lott0 Soudal), Egan Bernal and Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers), and Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe) among others.
This lead group maintained the two to two-and-a-half-minute advantage through 32km, when the chasing peloton, lead by Cofidis and EF Education-Nippo began to chip away at the gap.
At 25km to go, the break still enjoyed more than a minute-and-a-half advantage with nearly every rider sharing the responsibility to stay away.
Theuns, Kwiatkowski, and Coquard ramped up the pace at the front of the break on an undulation at 17km to go, which strung out the break into a single-file formation.
Kwiatkowski, trying to keep the speed high, nearly went off the road around a tight, off-camber turn at 14km to go.
Wellens displayed superb descending skills, which further stringing out the group off the front. He was able to get a few bike lengths away from the others on a twisty route through a small hamlet, and from this point, he kept squeezing more seconds into his margin.
“I saw my chance in the descent”, Wellens commented. “I took some advantage and teammate Oldani played it perfectly. Then, it was just a time trial to the finish. I also did the descent on the limit, I saw some oil on the road and the motorbike in front of me had a hard time keeping his line. Luckily, I was able to stay upright and I could further increase my lead.”
At 10km to go, Wellens had established a gap of 25 seconds and went into time trial mode.
Kwiatkowski made his way back into the group, where he, Bernal, and Van Avermaet lead the chase after Wellens.
But on a small rise with just 3km to go, the break appeared to let Wellens have his day, and eased up the pursuit to bring him back.
Wellens took the stage win, while the field sprint for the next best position in the break was won by Theuns, nearly 40 seconds back.
“I now have a 48-second lead on Kwiatkowski in the general classification. Tomorrow, it will be difficult to further extend my advantage. But I will be happy if I can hold that lead going into Sunday’s time trial. If I feel good, I know it will be difficult to give away the overall victory. But you never know of course,” the Belgian said.
Étoile de Bessèges stage 3 results
1. Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), 3:27:59
2. Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), at :37
3. Mads Würtz Schmidt (Israel Start-Up Nation), at s.t.
4. Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën), at s.t.
5. Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal), at s.t.
6. Cyril Barthe (B&B Hotels), at s.t.
7. Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ), at s.t.
8. Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe), at s.t.
9. Michael Gogl (Qhubeka-Assos), at s.t.
10. Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos-Grenadiers), at s.t.
Étoile de Bessèges general classifiction
1. Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), 10:37:38
2. Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), at :44
3. Mads Würtz Schmidt (Israel Start-Up Nation), at :46