Even the dismal weather couldn't dampen the spectacle on offer at Tirreno-Adriatico, as Mathieu van der Poel pulled off a magnificent solo win, holding off race leader Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) to take the stage five victory.
Such was the effort to keep the Tour de France champion at bay, the Dutchman crossed the finish line head hanging over his handlebars, no energy left to celebrate, collapsing to the floor past the finish line and staying there.
Van der Poel had gone solo from 50km out after pushing the issue consistently, his 20-minute GC deficit enough to allow him up the road in pursuit of stage glory.
Pogačar soon made his own move, however, looking to distance Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) on the punchy finishing circuit to extend his lead before the final time trial.
Although Pogačar's ride was formidable, he hadn't set off in pursuit of Van der Poel, but his effort brought him within 10 seconds of the Dutchman after nearly closing the two-minute gap, eventually settling for second place as he put more than 40 seconds into Van Aert, now leading the Belgian in the overall by 1-15.
The riders were dead behind the eyes as they warmed-down after the stage, a lasting image of what was yet another incredible day of racing at the start of the 2021 season.
How it happened
Church bells rang out in Castellalto as the riders lined up to set off for stage five on Sunday, readying themselves for a windy, wet and cold day culminating in four and a half laps of a circuit featuring a 1.5km-long 10.1 per cent finishing climb to the town of Castelfidardo.
Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious),Robert Stannard (BikeExchange) and Jonas Rickaert (Alpecin-Fenix) eventually got off the front, the first half of the stage flat, with Ganna averaging 370w and 55.3km/h in the first hour of racing.
The break soon had a gap of four minutes, losing a minute as they entered the finishing circuit with 90km to go.
Their advantage continued to come down, as Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) and Chris Juul-Jensen (BikeExchange) jumped away from the peloton, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) dropping out the back and the rain started to fall as the two poursuivants were brought back into the fold.
The action then began in the peloton, Van der Poel pushing on with Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogačar and Julian Alaphilippe before the world champion started struggling, perhaps stuck in the wrong gear.
Rickaert and Ballerini were soon dropped from the break, as Van der Poel had thinned the bunch down to around 10 riders, and then it was day over for the break as the Dutchman attacked to catch and pass them.
Van der Poel pulled on the front of this amalgated break for a couple of kilometres before the GC guys behind made contact again, the group size swelling to around 20, with Bernal the next to attack, Higuita, Pogačar and Van Aert closing the move down, Van der Poel taking a backseat this time.
The quintet pushed on, around 10 seconds ahead of a larger chase group, and as they started to come back Van der Poel set off once again.
Pogačar then suffered a mechanical, but got back on just fine, with Van der Poel 20 seconds ahead with under 50km remaining.
This was soon 35 seconds, as Van Aert jumped ahead at the finish line to take a second back off Pogačar. The suffering was real now, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) looking utterly miserable as he found himself in a group chucked off the back of a peloton now being led by Davide Formolo, the Italian trying to hold things together for Pogačar.
Van der Poel's gap was over a minute with 40km to go, before taking another minute over the next 10km. Behind, Egan Bernal had a scary moment as he battled with his rain jacket, the riders feeling the cold now.
An attack by Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) momentarily split the chase group before Astana's Fabio Felline put in a dig, Marc Soler (Movistar) and Alessandro de Marchi (Israel Start-Up Nation) following him.
Van der Poel had more than three minutes inside the final 20km, and with 17km to the line Tadej Pogačar launched his attack. Wout van Aert couldn't respond, as Landa got on the Belgian's wheel who fought against the gradient in vain to try and get back on terms.
The Slovenian had soon caught Felline and Soler, starting to eat into Van der Poel's advantage, leaving those two riders behind in to the final 10km.
They soon had new company in Van Aert, though, who wasn't giving up, 30 seconds behind Pogačar. 7km to go and Van der Poel had 1-30 over Pogačar, another 15 seconds taken back over the next 2km.
With 3km to go the gap was under a minute, Van der Poel suffering after his monumental solo effort, Van Aert 40 seconds back. 30 seconds to go with 2km remaining, 20 seconds at the flamme rouge...Pogačar looked like he may be about to out-Van-der-Poel Van der Poel but the Dutchman clung on, just, to cross the line 10 seconds ahead.
Difficult to judge who'd pulled off the better ride, but both riders had achieved what they'd set out to, Pogačar extending his GC lead to more than a minute over Van Aert as Van der Poel lay crumpled on the floor.
Tirreno-Adriatico 2021, stage five: Castellalto to Castelfidardo (205km)
1. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) Alpecin-Fenix, in 4-48-17
2. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, at 10 seconds
3. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, at 49s
4. Fabio Felline (Ita) Astana - Premier Tech, at 1-26
5. Egan Bernal (Col) Ineos Grenadiers, at 2-07
6. Davide Formolo (Ita) UAE Team Emirates, at same time
7. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at 2-18
8. Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) Israel Start-Up Nation, at same time
9. Mikel Landa (Esp) Bahrain-Victorious, at 2-25
10. Matteo Fabbro (Ita) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 2-45
General classification after stage five
1. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, in 22-41-41
2. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, at 1-15
3. Mikel Landa (Esp) Bahrain-Victorious, at 3-00
4. Egan Bernal (Col) Ineos Grenadiers, at 3-30
5. Matteo Fabbro (Ita) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 3-54
6. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at 4-30
7. João Almeida (Por) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 4-42
8. Romain Bardet (Fra) DSM, at 5-03
9. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 5-54
10. Simon Yates (GBr) BikeExchange, at 6-58
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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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