A rookie in the Grande Boucle, the 24-year-old stayed with the best on Wednesday's stage, which teammate Dan Martin finished in 5th place.
Following a few skirmishes and fruitless attacks, nine riders got clear after the first categorized climb of a day which included six ascents and several narrow and twisty descents, with the peloton more than happy to let them go: Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Cyril Gautier (AG2R), Bartosz Huzarski (Bora-Argon 18), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data), Romain Sicard (Direct Energie), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Florian Vachon (Fortuneo-Vital Concept).
Even before the halfway point of the stage, they opened a gap of 7 minutes, which later was extended to 15 minutes, following an attack of De Gendt, Grivko and Van Avermaet, who left their fellow escapees behind and surged on the rolling roads of the Massif Central. At the intermediate sprint, Van Avermaet was first, while from the bunch Marcel Kittel – Tuesday's stage winner – took 5 points and is now just 8 points of green jersey Peter Sagan (Tinkoff).
With the pack deciding to take a day off until the final 40 kilometers of the day, when Movistar's fierce pace led to a significant trimming of the main group thus recovering time on the escapees, the trio stayed together with a comfortable lead until the two Belgians up front made a move on the penultimate ascent (Col du Perthus), leaving Grivko behind. From that duo, Van Avermaet proved to be the strongest, attacking and soloing to victory in Le Lioran, which was hosting a Tour de France stage for the first time in 41 years.
The peloton came home minutes later, strung out following an attack of Romain Bardet (AG2R), which dispatched Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), and from that group Dan Martin sprinted to 5th place. Teammate Julian Alaphilippe rolled over the line in the same time and made sure of keeping the white jersey for the fourth day in a row, a remarkable performance for a rider who's just five stages into his maiden Grand Tour. In the general classification, Julian rests in second place, while Dan has climbed to 10th, a handful of seconds behind the young Frenchman.
"Today we knew that we will face many attacks from the start and that there was a good chance for a break to go all the way to the line. In the final 35 kilometers, Movistar made the pack's life difficult, trying to test the other riders, and it wasn't easy to keep the pace, but I handled this situation well and now I'm happy and very proud for keeping the white jersey. Tomorrow, a flat stage is on the cards and we will try to set up Marcel Kittel for the sprint", said Julian of the stage which will take place between Arpajon-sur-Cère and Montauban (190.5 kilometers).
Also Daniel Martin – third in last month's Criterium du Dauphiné – was relieved to have passed this mountain test in the Massif Central, which brought the peloton one day closer to the first summit finish of this edition, after four days spent in the fields of Normandie and Bretagne: "The first mountain stage is a little bit of a shock to everybody, and today it was even more difficult because of the scorching heat, which made the road melt in some places. To be sincere, it felt like you were riding through glue all day long. It was a difficult start to the Tour de France and nobody had the legs to attack on Wednesday, because people are already tired after just a couple of days and 18 hours in the saddle. The team rode well together and I am confident for the mountain stages which will come later in the week."
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele