A deflated Remco Evenepoel said that he lacked "just two or three percent" on the final stage of the Tour of the Basque Country in which he failed to keep hold of the race's lead.
After taking the yellow jersey on stage five, the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider descended superbly to catch back onto a group of GC rivals ahead of the final climb, but the Belgian then lost touch with the six riders ahead of him to finish seventh on the stage and drop to fourth overall after a punishing six days in northern Spain.
"I'm sad, I am really sad. I think I might cry tonight," the 22-year-old, who was looking for his second WorldTour stage race victory, said with a smile on his face.
"I regret I got dropped, but there's no regrets really. We had to chase back. What can I say? I tried everything to come back and also when the guys started to attack, the gap remained the same. It was not a bad day, but just some percentages to be up there with the best, to fight with the best, to keep attacking, I missed that today. It's a bit sad to miss the podium by only five seconds.
"Today I missed two or three percent to get to those small attacks and to keep following, but really the steep climb killed me a bit. [Primož] Roglič put in a really high pace there and it killed a lot of the guys. I kept fighting, trying to fight for my jersey and also the podium, but in the end I missed out on that through bonus seconds, which is really sad. That's life."
The race was the first time that Evenepoel has shown himself capable of competing against a selection of the world's best general classification riders, including Roglič, his Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard, Movistar's Enric Mas and race winner Dani Martínez.
He reflected: "I'm not going to say it's my biggest disappointment, but I think it's a combination of disappointment and happiness that I finally I am at the level where I expect myself to be. But still there is some work, for sure.
"Even though I am not on the podium, I came here to test myself against the big guns from the Grand Tours, and I think I did that very well. Even today, I was up there until the last climb when they did the acceleration.
"I think my shape is OK, but that doesn't mean that I feel really happy now. It would have been lovely to be on the podium of the Basque Country, but I hope you guys are happy with what I showed this week."
Evenepoel will now switch his focus to the Ardennes Classics, returning to his home country to compete at De Brabantse Pijl this Wednesday. When the disappointment of the Basque Country resides, he will look back on a number of lessons.
"I learned that I can go down a mountain very well," he said. "And being able to battle with the best guys, being able to drop lots of guys in the downhill."
In what appeared to be a reference to his Il Lombardia crash in 2020, he added: "I think I can handle a bike very well. I hope you guys don't doubt that anymore."
Already a winner of 25 professional races, Evenepoel prepared for the Basque Country by spending almost three weeks training at altitude in Tenerife. He suggested that such training camps need to be repeated more often.
"The two weeks I had there were the only weeks where I've been climbing a lot," he said, "and it helped me a lot. So I think together with my coach and my team, we should think about training in the high mountains more.
"I think what I proved this week is that I can fight with the biggest guys in the Grand Tour world, and although Basque Country is not a Grand Tour, it's a good beginning."
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