The 33-year-old Belgian jumped into the early breakaway in the mountainous stage 10 and finished the day well ahead of the GC favorites to tighten his grip on the maillot jaune. His days in yellow may be numbered with more Alpine stages to come, but for Van Avermaet, it is a point of pride to defend his lead.
“I was not thinking about keeping the jersey at the start of the day but you have to read the race situation and that’s what I did,” he said. “I think I waited for the right moment and got into a big group with guys who were going to try to go for the stage.”
Van Avermaet put himself into a sizable move of over 20 riders that formed very early in the day, some 15 minutes into the action. Although the stage 10 parcours featured three first-category climbs one an hors categorie ascent, Van Avermaet rode comfortably with the main break for most of the day and managed to hold on out front even after things began to splinter.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) went on to take the stage win. Van Avermaet finished a solid fourth, 1:44 down on the Frenchman but 1:39 ahead of the main GC group led home by Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates). As such, he actually managed to add considerable time to his GC lead despite the day’s climber-friendly profile.
“It was a hard day but two years ago, I also went into the breakaway in the yellow jersey so, it was super nice for me to spend the day in yellow in the mountains,” Van Avermaet said, referencing stage 7 of the 2016 Tour.
“When the big move went, I decided to give it a go and see how Team Sky reacted and they didn’t.”
As versatile as Van Avermaet may be, the big GC favorites at the Tour will not be especially worried about his current position on the overall leaderboard considering the many mountain climbs still to come in this Tour. He is not putting in the effort in pursuit of a GC position, and even a stage win on this terrain seems unlikely; for Van Avermaet, it’s all about honoring the yellow jersey, cycling’s most coveted prize.
“The yellow jersey is as big as a stage win in the Tour de France,” he said. “It’s a real honor to ride with this every day, and that’s why I tried to defend it as much as possible.
“I am already 11 days in yellow, and not many Belgian guys have had this jersey.”
Van Avermaet’s BMC team suffered a huge blow on Sunday when GC hopeful Richie Porte crashed out of the race early in stage 9. That doesn’t mean the team has not had cause to celebrate during this Tour, however. In addition to the news of a merger with CCC-Sprandi Polkowice that is set to save at least some of the team structure, BMC also counts a stage win in the team time trial and now eight days — assuming Van Avermaet starts Wednesday’s stage 11 — with a rider in yellow. In addition to being an impressive sporting accomplishment, that’s eight days of extensive camera time before, during, and after the race. It also represents a whopping 200 WorldTour points, worth nearly what a rider accrues with two stage victories.
“What we saw today was something special. [Van Avermaet] is a big champion,” sports director Valerio Piva said. “This says so much about his character. Without Richie, we’ll keep fighting in this Tour. And that’s what Greg did today. He is such class.”
Unfortunately for Van Avermaet, his days in yellow may finally be numbered. After Tuesday’s hard day in the mountains, stage 11 will throw another challenging parcours at the Tour peloton. Ditto for stage 12.
By this time Wednesday and almost certainly by Thursday, the yellow jersey should be in the hands of a rider in the mix to hold it all the way to Paris.
“I went really deep today and tomorrow is really a climber’s stage and it will be super hard to keep the jersey,” Van Avermaet said. “I have no intention of trying to keep it. Today was really the only day that I could do it but I think after tomorrow it will be over.”
Andrew Hood contributed to this report from Le Grand-Bournand, France.