Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) "wasn't keen" to go 100 per cent in the Tour de France stage three to Épernay, where he lost five seconds to his team-mate Egan Bernal.
Bernal and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) made a front split at 26 seconds back from race winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and five seconds ahead of the other classification riders including Thomas.
"I only just heard there was about 40 or 50 guys just there, which was surprising," Thomas said.
"Obviously that climb where Alaphilippe went was steep and it was hard but I just knew I didn't have the legs to go for the bonus sprint, or at least if I had tried, it would've been 100 per cent maximum effort and I wasn't keen for that."
He referred to the Côte de Mutigny, where Alaphilippe attacked 16 kilometres from Épernay.
"I knew I wouldn't have had the legs to go for the bonus sprint [at the top of the climb], or if I'd tried it would have been 100 per cent maximum effort and I wasn't looking for that," explained Thomas.
"I said yeah, 'Let them go for it.' It was a case of getting to the finish, then, and try to be safe. So yeah, I think it was a good day all in all."
Alaphilippe excels in the punchy Classics, having won Milan-San Remo and La Flèche Wallonne this spring.
"When you see the guys that were going with Alaphilippe it was a hard one. Then it was just a case of getting to the finish and being safe," Thomas continued.
"I think today was a punchy day and one where I'd normally struggle the most and with limited racing coming in here but I was OK."
Bernal initially tried to ride free with Alaphilippe, but remained with Thomas, the 2018 Tour winner. They then covered the technical roads down to the Champagne fields and to the base of the final climb. On the 300-metre climb to the finish, a group of 11 moved slightly ahead led by Michael Matthews (Sunweb).
When Thomas finished, he did not yet know about the five-second gap or at least, he did not directly speak about it.
In the overall classification, now Alaphilippe leads with 20 seconds on Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), 25 on Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), 40 on Bernal in sixth and 45 on Thomas in seventh.
"I think I felt OK really considering that short, steep climbs aren't necessarily what I love. I think we rode really well as a team, we were always in good position and communicating really well so I think it was a good day," continued Thomas.
"I felt really good yesterday [in the team time trial], then today. I wasn't like dancing up the climbs but I was OK. I didn't want to do more than what had to be done."
Thomas fell in day one but did not lose time. In stage two yesterday in Brussels, he and co-leader Bernal helped Ineos finish second at 20 seconds in the team time trial to Jumbo-Visma with Kruijswijk.
With the time gaps from the time trial, the race is beginning to settle into its groove. Ahead, they have some flat stages before the stage six summit finish to Planche des Belles Filles.
"I think it helps settle the race down as well," Thomas said of the time trial and the hard punchy stages. "It's better than five flat sprint days which are super nervous and dodgy. Yeah, I quite like that."
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