Apparently there was a significant misprint in the Tour de France race book for stage three.
What was officially listed as a race day, specifically a 215 kilometer run from Binche to Epernay, was in actual fact a rest day.
The entire peloton did indeed leave Binche at the appointed time and head to the champagne region of France but only two riders, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) made the decision to race.
Wellens quickly jumped in the early break with Stephane Rossetto (Cofidis), Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Gobert), Anthony Delaplace (Arkea-Samsic) and Paul Ourselin (Total Direct Energie). However those four Frenchman, all from pro continental squads, merely wanted a better view of the countryside. When Wellens attacked, they responded with complete indifference. Au revoir, a demain.
The Belgian set off on his mission of grabbing the King of the Mountains points and the polka dot jersey with an outside hope that somehow he might hold off the peloton.
Wellens starting checking things of his Get Polka Dots to-do list, taking the points on the three category 3 climbs that marked the last forty kilometers of the stage. First up, the Côte d’Hautvillers at one kilometer in length and almost 10% in gradient, then the Côte de Champillon and finally, the nasty Côte de Mutigny with its 12% grade.
By this time, Wellens was down to his last thirty seconds and soon to meet the other rider not taking a jour de repos. As the peloton moved up the Côte de Mutigny, Alaphilippe launched a vicious acceleration while just behind Egan Bernal chatted into his radio. Not a single rider made any attempt to close the gap.
It’s one of the cliches of the Tour that in the chaotic first week, everyone has fresh legs and believes that with luck they could win a stage. You would assume that at minimum, several riders would have chased after Alaphilippe.
Nobody did. Not Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) who said this was an ideal stage for him. Not Peter Sagan, still smarting from his second place and missed yellow from stage one. Not anyone feeling lucky or desperate for sponsor camera time.
As Alaphilippe’s teammate Yves Lampaert said after stage, “I think when he attacked he had hoped to take some guys with him but he was alone.” Another way to put that would be nobody else to share the spotlight.
Alaphilippe caught Wellens just as the Belgian rider crossed under the summit banner, generously letting him have more points for his polka dot jersey. By the look of things, Wellens had a mechanical or just blew completely, stepping off his bike.
Then Alaphilippe did what he does so well: bomb downhill. The difference in descent speed between the Frenchman and the Team Ineos riders leading the peloton down was striking. Alaphilippe ripping through corners, tucked on his top tube versus the take-it-safe pace of Ineos whose only goal was protecting Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal.
It would be exceedingly generous to call the four man group that contained Michael Woods (EF Education First) and Mikel Landa (Movistar) a chase group. Landa looked like he was there by mistake and Alaphilippe consistently beat their speed, adding to his time advantage.
He sprinted up the final section of road to the finish line with thirty seconds in hand. Alaphilippe scored the stage win, the Epernay champagne and the yellow jersey. Which tends to happen when you race instead of taking the day off.