Belgium's Thomas De Gendt burst away to win the opening stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, a 170.5km ride around Saint-Étienne on

SAINT-ÉTIENNE, France  (AFP) — Belgium’s Thomas De Gendt burst away to win the opening stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, a 170.5km ride around the French city of Saint-Étienne on Sunday.

Chris Froome leads the cast of riders competing in the race that is an important warm-up event for the Tour de France. He is preparing to defend his title on the Grand Boucle next month.

However, it was Lotto rider De Gendt who stole the show as he finished around 40 seconds clear of France’s Axel Domont (AG2R La Mondiale) after dropping him on the final climb of a hilly circuit, with the peloton almost a minute adrift.  Froome came home in the peloton, 59 seconds behind the winner.

“For the first 120 kilometres I wasn’t thinking about winning the stage, only about the points in the best climber standings,” said De Gendt. “I haven’t raced since the Tour de Romandie and I’ve been in training for the last month. It is a bit of a surprise victory for me.”

A seven-man breakaway was formed as the col du Pilon (11.5km) was crested: De Gendt, Domont, Antonio Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Romain Sicard (Direct Energie), Silvio Herklotz (Bora-Hansgrohe), Delio Fernandez and Angel Madrazo (Delko Marseille Provence KTM). They got a five-minute lead at the 50-kilometer mark while the bunch was led by Team Sky. De Gendt rode for the polka dot jersey. After cresting the côte de la Roche (57km) in first position, he continued riding solo at the front before awaiting his breakaway companions after the côte de Périgneux (61.5km) where the biggest time gap on the bunch was recorded — 6 minutes 35 seconds.

Stage 1 results, top 10

De Gendt, 30, has notably won one stage on the Tour de France in 2016 and another on the Giro d’Italia in 2012, when he finished third overall.

He said he hopes to still be in the overall leader’s yellow jersey after Wednesday’s time-trial but he admitted he is unlikely to last much longer in contention.

Froome, meanwhile, will be aiming to get himself into contention in the coming days.

“It was a good stage and good for us to get that one out of the way without any major issues,” said the 32-year-old Team Sky rider.

“Thomas De Gendt did well today and he’ll definitely hold onto the jersey for a few days. He’s obviously going well, but once we hit the big climbs I expect he’ll give up the jersey at one point.”

Monday’s second stage in the eight-stage race will be a 171km ride from Saint-Chamond to Arlanc.

Stage 1 results

General classification