Pre-stage favourite Julian Alaphilippe has soloed to a sensational stage-three Tour de France victory in the champagne region of northern France, ahead of Australian Michael Matthews.
Frenchman Alaphilippe launched off the front of the peloton 15 kilometres from home on the upper slopes of the 900-metre-long Cote de Mutigny climb, quickly gapping the rest of the field.
The audacious attack caught the peloton out, and with no organised chase developing, Alaphilippe held on to take the third stage win of his career and ride into the yellow jersey, the first time a French rider has worn the malliot jaune since Tony Gallopin in 2014.
“I’m speechless,” Alaphilippe said after crossing the line.
“I knew this stage suited me. I felt good so I accelerated in the Mutigny climb but I didn’t think I’d go alone.
“I gave everything. It’s difficult to meet the expectations, being the favourite. I made it. I’m delighted.”
Despite a late charge from the rest of the group and a brutal 15 per cent rise in the closing 500 metres of the 215-kilometre stage, Alaphilippe could not be caught.
Matthews led home a select group of chasers – featuring the majority of the puncheurs expected to contend the stage victory – 26 seconds behind with a lung-busting sprint into Eperney in the heart of northern France’s Champagne country.
A brutal final 40 kilometres featuring four classified climbs caused gaps to develop further down the field, with last year’s champion Geraint Thomas losing five seconds to teammate Egan Bernal on the final run into the finish.
‘I really didn’t enjoy that’
Sunweb rider Matthews belied his “confused” pre-race build up – thrown into chaos by the withdrawal of last year’s runner up Tom Dumoulin – by showing his class in out-sprinting a much-reduced peloton up the final climb, but still professed to not being happy with his form in the early stages of the three-week race.
“[The sprint gave me] confidence yes, but no, I’m not happy with my shape,” Matthews told SBS.
“I was not where I’d like to be today.
“I was trying to convince myself that I wasn’t tired but I was destroyed.
“I really struggled today and it’s only the third day so – yeah, I really didn’t enjoy that.”
Despite the pain of finishing second, Matthews was heartened by the pace he showed in outsprinting green jersey favourite Peter Sagan, who finished fifth.
“I guess [the sprint] was just pure heart,” Matthews said.
“Thinking of my wife and my baby in the final there, just thinking this was for them and although it was for second, it was really beautiful in the end.”
🗣"I had really good team mates around me who kept me motivated and brought me back to the front. Today is a confidence booster for us going forwards."@blingmatthews after his fantastic 2nd place finish at the #TDF2019🇫🇷 today👇🏻
— Team Sunweb (@TeamSunweb) July 8, 2019
‘Today was way too hard’
Australian general classification hope Richie Porte described the final stages of the race as “tough” but was happy with his ride.
“I feel pretty good. I was up there with the strongest guys,” Porte told SBS.
“It was a nice day to get ticked off.”
Caleb Ewan, who sprinted to third place on the opening stage, said although he went into the stage with high hopes, he knew he would not have the legs to challenge for the stage.
“I didn’t know how hard it was going to be in the end … as soon as I could feel my legs on the first climb I thought I’m not going to make it over the next three,” Ewan told SBS.
“Then it was just energy-conserving mode.
“Today was way too hard for me.”
Tomorrow could be another matter, with the 213.5-kilometre stage from Reims to Nancy expected to favour the sprinters.
However, the Lotto Soudal rider may have his fellow countryman to contend with in the final bunch sprint as Matthews closes in on a stage win.
“It was unfortunate that Allaphillipe stayed away [today] because my sprint was really good,” Matthews said.
“I’ve been sixth [on stage one], fourth yesterday [in the team time trial] and second today, so if all things go well, tomorrow should be a good day.”