Lotto-Soudal rider Tim Wellens claimed an emotional victory on stage four of the BinckBank Tour after an unpredictable day of racing.
Wellens’s victory was the first win for the Belgian team since the death of their young star Lambrecht at the Tour of Poland last week.
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The final fight came down to a sprint between Wellens and under-23 world champion Marc Hirschi (Sunweb), who missed out on his first WorldTour victory by a narrow margin.
Jumbo-Visma’s Laurens De Plus was the most combative rider of the day after he split the race 30km from the line to create a three-rider breakaway, along with Hirschi and Wellens.
The trio came into the final kilometre together despite relentless attacks from De Plus, who led the race heading into the sprint.
Hirschi was overeager and launched an endless sprint on the slight uphill drag to the line, but Wellens was locked to his wheel and had the strength to take victory at the bike throw. Hirschi missed out on his first career WorldTour win to take second, with De Plus taking third.
Race leader Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) was dropped early in the day, leaving the jersey free to take, as Wellens moves into the top spot with a four-second lead over Hirschi.
How it happened
After the drama of stage three, with the peloton narrowly avoiding a huge crash with a pedestrian who walked out in the road and riders criticising the race organisation for “dangerous” finals, stage four of the BinckBank Tour 2019 offered up a deceptively innocuous profile on paper, covering 96.2km starting and finish in Houffalize in south east Belgium with no categorised climbs on the route.
But the short course featured three sharp and testing climbs in quick succession, each of which featured three times, before a final 10km run to the line.
The first attacks came immediately as Iljo Keisse (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) and Stan Dewulf (Lotto-Soudal) went clear and extended the gap to almost two minutes in the first 10km, taking the pressure off their teams for the chase.
Race leader Sam Bennett found himself in difficult fairly early in the stage, starting to slide back on the second ascent of the Côte de Saint-Roche at around the 5km mark, as the race started to unfold.
Laurens De Plus (Jumbo-Visma) split the race to pieces on the climb and the Belgian kick-started another breakaway of seven elite riders who quickly caught Keisse and Dewulf.
The new nine-rider group included De Plus, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Ždenek Štybar (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) and Tim Wellens, who held 20 seconds over the peloton.
Heavy downpours continued to blight the race, with the peloton cornering at a crawl.
Wellens launched an attack just inside the 40km mark but abandoned his effort after 6km of racing as the peloton caught the elite group, with around 30 riders still in contention, Bennett nowhere in sight.
Conditions started to clear as De Plus attacked yet again on the Côte de Saint-Roch with 28km to race, taking Wellens and Marc Hirschi (Sunweb) with him, and Ivan García (Bahrain-Merida) also bridged across.
The new four-rider break held 30 seconds over the reduced peloton with 20km to race.
De Plus continued his ceaseless string of attacks but was only able to distance García, while Wellens and Hirschi comfortably stuck with him.
Inside 10km the trio held 48 seconds over the peloton and it became clear the battle for the stage and the overall would come down to these riders.
Heading into the final kilometre, De Plus led from the front with Hirschi and Wellens poised on his wheel.
It was Hirschi who jumped first, his inexperience showing, as he attacked the final rise to the line with a long way to go.
Wellens was locked to his wheel and was patient as the finish rapidly approached, before he finally slid out to move past Hirschi, securing the win only in the very final metre with his bike throw.
Hirschi finished second with De Plus in third, as Wellens now leads the race overall.
BinckBank Tour 2019, stage four: Houffalize to Houffalize (96.2km)
1. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, in 2-20-41
2. Marc Hirschi (Sui) Sunweb, at same time
3. Laurens De Plus (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, at 5 seconds
4. Ivan García (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 23s
5. Oliver Naesen (Bel) Ag2r La Mondiale, at same time
6. Michael Valgren (Den) Dimension Date, at 26s
7. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, at same time
8. Søren Kragh Andersen (Den) Sunweb, at 33s
9. Dion Smith (Nzl) Mitchelton-Scott
10. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) CCC Team, all at same time
General classification after stage four
1. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, in 13-32-46
2. Marc Hirschi (Sui) Sunweb, at 4s
3. Laurens De Plus (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, at 14s
4. Sam Bennett (Irl) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 19s
5. Ivan García (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 36s
6. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, at 38s
7. Jasper Philipsen (Bel) UAE Team Emirates, at 39s
8. Dylan Groenewegen (Ned) Jumbo-Visma
9. Oliver Naesen (Bel) Ag2r La Mondiale, all at same time
10. Łukasz Wiśniowski (Pol) CCC Team, at 41s