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Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) claimed the fourth stage victory of his career in the Critérium du Dauphiné on Sunday’s opening day of racing in a closely contested bunch sprint.
A late surge by Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers) up the left hand side of the slightly rising finishing straight could not stop Van Aert from comfortably outpacing the Briton, taking the stage and the first lead in the race. Sean Quinn (EF Education-Easy Post) was third.
Van Aert’s victory came after a hectic final hour in which out-and-out sprinters like Dylan Groenewegen (Bike Exchange-Jayco) were dropped on a late climb and then, despite a frantic pursuit, were unable to regain contact.
Instead, the sprint was disputed by allrounders like Van Aert and Hayter, already sparring partners in multiple tough sprints like Sunday’s last year throughout the Tour of Britain.
“It was a fast run-in – after the climb the pace was always high in the first group,” Van Aert said afterwards.
“My team positioned me really well. We got a little surprised by the late attack by [Remi Cavagna (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), so I asked [teammate] Christophe (Laporte) to not lead me out but to chase him down. Afterwards I took the wheel of the guys from Ineos. I was well-positioned and ready for a good sprint.”
How it unfolded
The hilly stage between the Ardèche region towns of La Voulte-sur-Rhône and Beauchastel kicked off with a brief flurry of moves on the opening second category ascent of the Col de Larisse, eventually allowing a day-long break go clear.
Two veteran Frenchmen, Maxime Bouet (Arkéa-Samsic) and Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels-KTM) set the pace early on the Larisse before Belgian Laurens Huys (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) completed the trio of day-long attackers. As a former mountains classification winner in the Tour de France, it was perhaps unsurprising that Rolland grabbed maximum points both on this climb and the other three dotted throughout the stage.
Behind, though, the peloton were in no mood to let the breakaway gain too much time on one of the few stages with any degree of probability of coming down to a bunch sprint in this year’s race.
But if Jumbo-Visma and BikeExchange-Jayco showed most interest in working behind and keeping the gap to three minutes or less, on the third category ascent of Côte de Chambon de Bavas, it was actually Trek-Segafredo who squeezed the gap down to less than 30 seconds by the summit.
The sight of a flailing Groenewegen at the back of the bunch alone with other sprinters like Juan Sebastian Molano (UAE Team Emirates) made it blatantly obvious why. BikeExchange-Jayco dropped back en masse to try and drag their fastman back into the action but Ineos Grenadiers swarmed to the front of the race after the summit to keep the pace high.
As the race finally dropped out of the Ardèche hills and ran alongside the banks of the Rhône, a furious pursuit evolved between the bulk of the peloton and the Australian squad behind, with the gap dropping to less than 20 seconds. But that was as narrow as the gap got.
With a bunch sprint of some 100 riders all but clear to materialize, a brief move by French National Champion Cavagna in his classic late-breakaway move was crushed almost before it had started. On a slightly rising finale, Van Aert was always going to be in his element, and so it proved.
“On the climbs I was quite comfortable, normally it suits me when it’s a hard final like this. But then in the sprint, there were guys like Hayter you have to beat – he’s doing great this season,” Van Aert observed.
As for how long he can stay with the leader’s jersey, Van Aert observed that “the coming stages suit me quite well so we will definitely try to defend if it’s possible. In the weekend, I hope to hand it over to Primož [Roglič] but there are a lot of tough stages coming first.”
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