Tim Wellens took stage three of Étoile de Bessèges 2021 solo after getting up the road with a huge breakaway made up of some superbly strong riders, attacking on the descent of the final climb with 16km to go.
Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) pushed on and capitalised on Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos Grenadiers) who almost crashed on the descent as he looked to push on from the group.
The peloton never got inside a minutes gap to the break with the peloton splitting to bits in the final 20 or so kilometres.
Belgian rider Wellens took the stage by 37 seconds over the rest of the break that was led in by Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo).
Wellens takes the overall lead by 44 seconds over Theuns and 46 seconds to Mads Schmidt (Israel Start-Up Nation) in third.
How it happened
The peloton started in the town of Bessèges before taking on an extremely lumpy first half of the stage with three categorised climbs with plenty of uncategorised ramps, before the terrain flattened out to head back to Bessèges after 154.5km.
The initial break was formed of Wellens, Philippe Gilbert, Stefano Oldani (Lotto-Soudal), Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën), Michael Gogl (Qhubeka-Assos), Schmidt, Odd Christian Eiking (Intermarché-Wanty Gobert), Jake Stewart, Julius van den Burg, Alexys Brunel, Benjamin Thomas (Groupama-FDJ), Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe), Theuns, Bryan Coquard, Cyril Barthe (both B&B Hotel-Vital Concept), Clément Carisey (Team Delko) and Marti Marquez (Kern Pharma).
The maximum gap for this huge break – which did also briefly feature the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) – maxed around the three minute mark before the race leader Christophe Laporte’s team Cofidis as well as EF Education-Nippo took the lead with about 85km to go.
With around 45km to go the gap had been hacked down to 2-16 with stage two winner, Timothy Dupont’s team Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles, taking to the front with Alpecin-Fenix’s Belgian champion Dries De Bondt pacing as well as Total Direct Energie also joining.
This saw the bunch begin to cut the gap down, but with 26km to go the advantage was still out at 1-50 to the break that didn’t look to be struggling.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Total Direct Energie) was one of the riders drilling it on the front of the peloton, showing he wasn’t going for the sprint after a nasty crash the day before.
Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) joined his team on the front of the peloton to try and help pull the break back with 20km to go, it was brought down to 1-20 before Boasson Hagen pulled off then the gap went back up to 1-40 with 16km to go.
Theuns set off on an attack at the 16km mark but Kwiatkowski went over the top, stretching the break out and dropping multiple riders with Barthe being the only rider able to follow the initial move.
But Kwiatkowski went a bit too deep on a corner and almost came off the bike, luckily staying upright, but it was Wellens who had pushed on leaving the rest behind with 13km to go.
Behind the peloton seemed to be panicking with multiple attacks on the final climb of the day, led by Anthony Turgis (Total Direct Energie), but nothing really stuck as the gap had stretched to 2-00 again.
Wellens quickly pulled out a 26 second gap over the Bernal-led chasing break group and looked strong with 9km to go.
The Lotto-Soudal rider crossed the finish line for the first time with 7km to go, 18 seconds back to the chasers led by Kwiatkowski.
Wellens was uncatchable and he took the stage with a 37 second gap to the Theuns-led breakaway. Wellens goes into the orange overall leaders jersey by 44 seconds.
Étoile de Bessèges 2021, stage three, Bessèges – Bessèges (154.5km)
1. Tim Wellens (BEL) Lotto-Soudal, in 3-28-02
2. Edward Theuns (BEL) Trek-Segafredo, at 37 seconds
3. Mads Schmidt (DEN) Israel Start-Up Nation
4. Greg Van Avermaet (BEL) Ag2r-Citroën
5. Philippe Gilbert (BEL) Lotto-Soudal)
6. Cyril Barthe (FRA) B&B Hotels-Vital Concept
7. Jake Stewart (GBR) Groupama-FDJ
8. Nils Politt (GER) Bora-Hansgrohe
9. Michael Gogl (AUT) Qhubeka-Assos
10. Michał Kwiatkowski (POL) Ineos Grenadiers, all at same tim.
General classification after stage three
1. Tim Wellens (BEL) Lotto-Soudal, in 10-17-38
2. Edward Theuns (BEL) Trek-Segafredo, at 44 seconds
3. Mads Schmidt (DEN) Israel Start-Up Nation, at 46s
4. Michał Kwiatkowski (POL) Ineos Grenadiers, at 48s
5. Philippe Gilbert (BEL) Lotto-Soudal, at 49s
6. Jake Stewart (GBR) Groupama-FDJ, at 50s
7. Greg Van Avermaet (BEL) Ag2r-Citroën
8. Michael Gogl (AUT) Qhubeka-Assos
9. Cyril Barthe (FRA) B&B Hotels-Vital Concept
10. Clément Carisey (FRA) Team Delko, all at same time.