Ahead of the big mountain days, a very undulating stage opened a shortened Critérium du Dauphiné on Wednesday. The main goal was not to lose ground on the other favourites, which Thibaut Pinot managed to do perfectly with the help of his teammates. Nineteenth on the line, two ranks behind his mate Sébastien Reichenbach, the French climber finished in the same time than the winner Wout van Aert.

“Thibaut felt very confident in Stefan’s wheel”, Philippe Mauduit

A noteworthy fact to mention to begin with: all stages on this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné will finish at the top of a climb, whether short or long. Consequently, it did already today on the longest stage of the race, which took the riders from Clermont-Ferrand to Saint-Christo-en-Jarez after nearly 220 kilometers. On the way, no less than seven categorized climbs were listed, including five of fourth category, which made it for a really hilly terrain. After ten kilometers or so, five men got clear: Brent Van Moer (Lotto-Soudal), Michael Schär (CCC), Quinten Hermans (Circus-Gobert), Tom-Jelte Slagter (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept) and Niccolo Bonifazio (Total Direct Energie). The breakaway enjoyed a six-minute lead before breaking apart. Bonifazio first waited for the peloton, Hermans and Van Moer then crashed, reducing the quintet to a simple duo. Slagter gave company to Schär for some time before letting the Swiss go on his own with about sixty kilometers to go.

Schär was then on the lead when the riders crossed the line for the first time, with thirty-five kilometers to go, which allowed everyone to get a clear idea of the final hundreds meters. Some counter-attacks then popped up but the peloton also increased the pace as the decisive part of the stage approached. On the long descent leading to the bottom of the final climb, Stefan Küng brought Thibaut Pinot up to the front. “Stefan knew the roads quite well because he came to ride there three days ago,” explained Philippe Mauduit. “He took the opportunity to recon the final circuit and he knew it was a tricky part to manage. That’s why he took charge of things. He did well, and Thibaut was in full confidence in his wheel. He didn’t put himself at risk and was totally in control. However, these last thirty-five kilometers were a bit dangerous, as there were fifteen kilometers downhill, in the villages, with traffic islands, road narrowing etc. The peloton made it through but the tension arose”.

“It’s a good day for us”, Thierry Bricaud

At the bottom of the final climb, which was made of two 4th category climbs, the breakaway riders were caught while Jumbo-Visma started to set a very intense pace in order to prevent any attack and therefore favour a small bunch sprint for Wout van Aert. “We had bet on a sprint finish and a day controlled by Jumbo-Visma. This is what happened”, Philippe continued. “The goal was to support Thibaut all day long and not lose time in the final. He just showed he was there when there were a few attacks and he put himself out of danger”. “The first days in stage races are always complicated,” added his colleague Thierry Bricaud. “This was even truer today with 220 kilometers of racing, a lot of heat and obviously a little tension knowing that this is a real pre-Tour rehearsal. It was important not to lose time, to be there in the final and that’s what happened. It’s a good day for us.”

While Wout van Aert confirmed his favourite status by winning an explosive sprint, Thibaut Pinot finished in 19th position, in the wheel of Sébastien Reichenbach (17th). After getting through this tricky first stage, the Groupama-FDJ’s leader will face a tougher challenge on Thursday, with the summit finish at the Col de Porte (16.6km at 6.2%). “Jumbo-Visma showed its ability to do the work, and there is no doubt about Ineos’ one,” previews Philippe Mauduit. “I believe that collectively it will be a game between these two teams. Then, individuals will take part to that game, like Thibaut for us. He will be surrounded for quite a while on the final climbs that await us, especially by Valentin and Sébastien, and that is a good thing. We can imagine that the day will be controlled by Jumbo-Visma again and we can expect a climbing train as we have witnessed lately”.

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