A delighted Remco Evenepoel said that leading the Tour of the Basque Country with one day to go was evidence that he can compete with the best general classification riders.
The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider attacked on a false flat during the latter stages of the penultimate climb on a relentlessly tough stage five, the Belgian bringing seven riders with him but crucially not previous race leader Primož Roglič.
Ineos Grenadiers' Carlos Rodríguez claimed his maiden professional win from the breakaway, with his teammate and stage four victor Dani Martínez rolling home second, the Colombian crossing the line two seconds ahead of Evenepoel. Ahead of the final stage that includes seven categorised climbs, Evenepoel leads Martínez by just two seconds.
Asked by Cycling Weekly if getting the better of Roglič in a major race for the first time in his career was a statement result, Evenepoel said: "Thank you [for saying that]. I am really proud to finally be up there with the big guns.
"I have been looking for this shape and level for a long time. In Tirreno [-Adriatico] I was still not there, but now I feel really good, really strong, and when the team supports you it's very nice. Maybe it's that this race just suits me really well: climbs a bit shorter, a bit steeper.
"I am just proud to be in the yellow jersey in the Basque Country. It's a dream come true. When we started the season and made my program and said that I'd do Basque, the goal was to come here and try for a good GC. Now we're leading it with one day to go. There can't be a worse situation."
Evenepoel said that almost three weeks training at altitude in Tenerife immediately before the race played a big part in his current form, as he needed "to find my climbing legs again. At Tirreno I suffered quite a lot in the high mountains but today I could feel that I have made big steps forward on the climbing side."
Evenepoel has tried multiple times during the week to try and force a move, but he was unable to dislodge Roglič until today. He explained that he had prepared beforehand where he would attack on stage five.
"I think it was a good moment because when everybody thinks it is a plateau on a climb, everybody wants to recover," he explained. "But I wanted to keep the pace really high and that's where I wanted to make my move. We discussed it before the race, so I am really happy it worked out well.
"I think there was still between 10 and 15km to the line, so I thought why not. There was still a valley to come to the finish line, and Roglič and [Adam] Yates were both dropped, the guys who looked the strongest in the first days. Today, the strongest were in front.
"The finale was really hectic - maybe it was a bit over the limit with the rain. It was not a proper sprint anymore because at 75m to go I slipped, lost position with the guys in front of me, and then guys in front of me crashed. That's why Martínez took a bit of time back, I guess. But that's life. That's Spain and rain, it's never a good combination.
"I'm actually just quite speechless to wear a yellow jersey in the hardest one week WorldTour race of the season."
The 22-year-old, however, knows that the hunter becomes the hunted on the final stage, although it is not in his nature to sit in and try and maintain his advantage. Would he be looking at the road book tonight and planning his moves tomorrow? "It's a short answer: yes," he smiled.
"Let's say that attack is the best defence. I actually expect a big battle together with Martínez and the guys of Ineos but I think Martínez is the only one that is still really close on GC, so they'll probably put all in for him.
"For me, the breakaway can go. That would be very nice, and behind a big fight for the yellow jersey. Also if it comes to a sprint it will be different to today and I just need to be in one wheel.
"They [Jumbo-Visma] will put it all on [Jonas] Vingegaard [who sits 29 seconds adrift with Roglič now 1-05 behind]. But I think the most important will be Ineos. Martínez won a stage yesterday, today he looked very strong. But everybody can have a bad tomorrow, including myself. The legs will decide who will win this Basque Country."
Before signing off from the race leader's chair, the cheery Belgian quipped to the press. "Hopefully I'm here again tomorrow."
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