Remco Evenepoel has said that he did not envisage moving into the lead at the Vuelta a España on stage six, and that he did not anticipate attacking eight kilometres from the finish on a memorable day for the young Belgian.
The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider produced the climbing performance of his life on the slopes of Pico Jano in Cantabria, distancing his rivals including three-time winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) with a fierce attack that only Enric Mas of Movistar could follow.
Evenepoel crossed the line second, behind stage winner Jay Vine, and he finished a huge 1-22 ahead of Roglič and 10 other GC riders to jump eight places into the lead.
He now holds an advantage of 21 seconds over previous leader Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) and 28 seconds over Mas who crossed the line just a second behind the Belgian superstar. Crucially, though, Evenepoel has a cushion of 61 seconds to defending champion Roglič.
The 22-year-old was ecstatic at the finish, even more so because he had not forecast his move. "It was not really planned to attack," he said. "I didn't know what the weather conditions would be or the feeling of the legs. Nothing was planned. To put actions like this into real life is always tricky to predict."
His coach Koen Pelgrim told Cycling Weekly that Evenepoel had been training on steep ascents in Italy and Spain to build-up for the Vuelta, and the Quick-Step rider believes that this preparation was essential to what he achieved in northern Spain.
"Training on steep climbs is something that I've been focusing on for the last two to three months and it definitely pays off," he said. "But it's all about the legs and feelings on the day, not the training."
Evenepoel has already triumphed at this year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Clásica de San Sebastián, but few victories have felt as special as this one.
"I think what I achieved today is as beautiful as my win in Liège," he said. "My first leader's jersey in a Grand Tour is an amazing feeling. Even though I didn't win the stage, it's the same feeling for me."
Once Evenepoel got away with Mas, he and the Spaniard steadily extended their lead over Roglič and co. "I knew the gap was grouping to the group of [Simon] Yates and Roglič and all the guys, and I was thinking maybe if we worked together we could have caught the guys in the break," he noted.
"That was not important - the most important was to extend the lead as much as possible to the other strong climbers. Enric did a perfect race and he looked really strong. He has a good shape to do well in this Vuelta, and I was happy I could finish the stage with a former teammate. That's always something special."
"I am happy with what we showed as a team today," he added, referencing world champion Julian Alaphilippe's long and powerful pull at the front up and over the penultimate climb. "I think most importantly people could see that we were there as a team and we were really strong with everyone focused. I didn't ride alone into the last climb - they really helped me towards it."
The race remains in the mountainous north for another three days, with the weekend seeing a double header of summit finishes which could prove crucial in determining if Evenepoel will win the race in Madrid.
"Obviously the Vuelta is far from over and I will do my maximum and my best to try and keep this jersey," he added. "There are still 14 stages to go, but it's a very beautiful day and something I have worked really hard for.
"There are a lot of hard stages to still come this week, but never be in doubt that I will do everything to keep it as long as possible.
"I cannot say in this moment that I will win the Vuelta, not at all. It's really difficult to say, but I will obviously do my best to try and end up as high as possible in the GC."
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1