If you were watching stage six of the Tour de France and were perplexed as to why the yellow jersey of Wout van Aert was in a breakaway of three, then you can find solace in knowing that the entire peloton were also scratching their own heads.
The Jumbo-Visma rider began the day with a 13 second general classification lead on EF Education-EasyPost's Neilson Powless, but contrary to decades-long tradition, the race's leader was intent on populating the day's breakaway, trying multiple times to make one stick until one finally did after 80km. The opening two hours were ridden at a pace in excess of 50kmh.
Van Aert eventually teamed up with Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Isreal-PremierTech), the latter only 1-20 behind Van Aert and looking to finish in the top-10 come Paris. The trio, however, became two in the final hour, and Van Aert was left out front alone with 30km to go, only being caught by the chasing peloton with 11km remaining. Tadej Pogačar, the defending champion, won the uphill sprint in Longwy.
Rolf Aldag, Bora-Hansgrohe's sports director, theorised that Van Aert assumed that the only way to hold onto yellow was to go for broke. Asked if he understood the move, he laughed: "No, not really! Maybe it was because Jumbo had a really rough day yesterday and they said, 'look, Wout, we can't ride and defend your jersey' so he said, 'well, you know what? I'll do it on my own'. Really easy and simple - if your team can't do it, you do it yourself.
"Attack is the best form of defence. That's the only thing that crossed my mind. With all respect, he is absolutely one of the best cyclists in the world but he's not a guy who's going to win the Tour de France right now, so therefore this was interesting. But it was a good show so big respect to him. It shows what a good bike rider he is."
Lotto-Soudal's Reinardt Janse van Rensburg subscribed to the same view, and revealed that his presence at the head of the race forced Tadej Pogačar's UAE-Team Emirates to work harder than usual.
"I think he wanted the jersey, and if he let a break go he would have lost the jersey," the South African said. "Also, they put UAE under a lot of pressure, so maybe he was trying to make them tired before the mountains come. I think he has probably spent a lot of energy today, but maybe it will pay off later in the race.
"He was trying to get into moves quite early on and that made the race really fast. The first hour was incredibly fast and I think everybody was suffering. At the moment he is in his own class. We'll see how he goes in the mountains - hopefully he slows down!"
Although the race's tempo did relent, the final average speed of 49.376kmh made it the fifth fastest Tour stage in history.
Keeping up in the peloton was Damiano Caruso of Bahrain-Victorious. He, too, was surprised by the move, but he tipped his proverbial hat to Van Aert. "I'm happy because people like this kind of attack. It's good for the show," the Italian said.
"The tactics, I didn't know about it. But maybe it's because this rider's talents are so big, he can decide if one day he wants to go and make a show for the people watching on TV. He can do whatever he wants."
The sentiment was also shared by Romain Bardet, Team DSM's rider who has twice finished on the race's final podium. "I think it was great to see," the Frenchman said. "He is an amazing champion and he almost made it.
"Honestly, everyone was super-impressed with what he did. I think he's honouring the race with his actions and we can only salute him because he's making cycling beautiful.
"He was the only one today able to do this kind of stuff. Most of the time we see the yellow jersey on the defence; today it was really amazing to see what he did because it was full-gas in the chase to try and catch him."
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