This breakaway was not supposed to survive to the finish. With 122km to go of stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia, the quartet of riders up the road had just 2-05 on the peloton. This translated to just over a kilometre on the road, a distance that would surely be eaten up as the sprint teams put all their effort into catching the break for two and a half hours.
Stage 18 in Treviso was the last chance of the sprinters in the race, the final opportunity for Mark Cavendish (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), and Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates); the nailed-on bunch finish that would make all the Alpine climbing of the past few days worth it.
Except, it was not nailed on. With 25km to go, the break had 1-35 on the peloton, but this would just not come down. On the final circuit around Treviso, the gap hovered about a minute, but the twists and turns around the city proved to the breakaway's advantage, and hampered the peloton's progress.
The bunch simply left it too late. They might have just got it right on stage 13 a week ago, when the escape was caught within sight of the line, but they messed this one up. Not that it was just mistakes; the break did all they could to stay away. Dries De Bondt was the winner in the final sprint, his first Grand Tour victory, but it was down to all of the break really.
Asked how he won, De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix), pointedly said: "I think it’s a we question and not an I question. It was a collaboration until the last kilometre. We bought some time to speculate, maybe but actually we didn’t speculate."
The unlikely four were De Bondt, Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost), Edoardo Affini (Jumbo-Visma) and Davide Gabburo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè). It was not a pointless exercise for any of them, not just a boost for their team sponsors with some TV time.
The quartet attacked within the opening six kilometres of the day's stage, on the punchy early climbs, and quickly set into a rhythm. They were careful not to put too much time into the peloton, to spook them into chasing too early, but also maintained a gap that was possible to succeed from.
If they had got three, four, five minutes on the peloton, the panic would have set in earlier in the bunch, and the teams working for the sprint would surely have worked harder to bring them back. Instead, they were lulled into a false sense of security. Once the break was in the final circuit, there was no stopping them. They were clever, and they won.
"The collaboration between the four of us was magnificent," the Belgian explained. "There was no moment of doubt, nobody skipped one turn, everybody did full full full to the line. It was the only way to pull off the break.
"They predicted this was gonna be a sprint stage, and for sure Démare or Cavendish or [Phil] Bauhaus or [Alberto] Dainese was gonna win, it was written in the stars, but we made a plan during the race with the four of us. We stuck to the plan and we pulled it off."
The break consisted of almost the perfect riders for such a day: De Bondt, who has so much experience in circuit races, Affini, the time triallist, Cort, the Danish strong man with seven Grand Tour stage wins, and Gabburo, who had already proved himself in the break on stage eight to Napoli, he finished eighth that day.
Their victory was all part of a clever plan, it was not just down to the peloton messing up, that is certain.
"Together we decided to take it easy, gamble with the bunch, to see what they were going to do," Affini explained. "Just before the Refrontolo climb we decided to speed up to gain time, actually the plan worked out pretty well.
"We worked always all together, with the same goal, to try and win the stage. Unfortunately I found Dries faster than me, but yeah, chapeau to him."
It was disappointment for the sprinters, and their teams. The work that Cavendish, for example, has put in to stay in side the time cut has been creditable over the last few days, but in the end he goes home with just one stage win.
"A strong break went away and we worked hard to bring them back," a surely disappointed Gaviria said post-stage. "The pace was high but we struggled to control it in the peloton. It’s a pity to come away empty handed but days like this can happen in cycling. ”
De Bondt achieves his dreams, and more
We already know that Alpecin-Fenix are more than just a Mathieu van der Poel vehicle, this is their third victory with three different riders at this race. Van der Poel triumphed on stage one, Stefano Oldani won on stage 12, and now De Bondt took his turn.
There is clearly a winning mentality at the Belgian team, who have impressed more at this race than some of their WorldTour counterparts, especially local rivals like Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl and Lotto-Soudal.
It creates winners out of riders like De Bondt, who is more usually seen as a leadout man for Tim Merlier. The Belgian has never won a WorldTour race before, let alone a stage of the Giro. Before today, his most notable result was winning the Belgian National Championship road race two years ago.
The 30-year old has clearly put in a lot of work to get to this point, however, and impressed in outsprinting Cort and Affini in Treviso.
"I knew Affini was gonna go from far in the sprint, so I needed to be in his wheel," De Bondt explained. "The pressure was gonna be on Magnus, because he was the fastest, and has the biggest palmarés to win grand tour stages also. It was logical that he was the first one to go in the final K."
They had all worked hard to get to the final kilometre without the peloton troubling them, but only the Belgian could deliver.
"F**k," he said, succintly. "I can’t believe it, it’s my first. It was actually just a dream. I always said since I started cycling I had dreams. Those dreams became goals, those goals I achieved. I made bigger dreams, achieved them.
"I became Belgian national champion, I did a Grand Tour in the national jersey, my first Giro. Then I started dreaming of winning a stage here, I made a plan for this year, and now I pulled it off, it’s amazing."
De Bondt will have to start thinking of more dreams now.
Thank you for reading 5 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