Froome and Thomas lead the way as Sagan climbs to win
Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sagan beat Michael Matthews of Team Sunweb and Quick-Step Floors’ Dan Martin in an uphill sprint, but with Thomas and Froome crossing the line in eighth and ninth they took control of first and second place in the general classification.
Thomas leads by 12 seconds from Froome, with Australian Matthews third on the same time and Sagan fourth, a further second back. “It’s the best start we’ve ever had,” Thomas said. “It is still a fight, but it means we have the freedom to ride up there.”
The 212.5km stage from Verviers took the riders on a lap of the Spa-Francorchamps Formula 1 circuit before they passed through Luxembourg and into France for the first time this year.
But the battle for victory was always expected to come down to the final climb, the Cote des Religieuses.
Sagan was the clear favourite and duly delivered despite pulling his foot out of his pedal as he tried to launch his sprint. “You don’t have time to think,” he said of that moment. “You just have to do.”
Sagan came to the fore after BMC’s Richie Porte, seen as Froome’s main rival in the race, launched his own attack 800m from the finish.
“It wasn’t (premeditated) at all, but the guys put me in a fantastic position,” said the Australian, who sits 20th, 47 seconds down on Thomas. “It felt good, but I knew when I saw that 500m to go sign that it was a bit too far for me.”
Sky had been happy to let Porte exert himself, confident others would do the work to chase him down.
“We were not too stressed about it,” Thomas said. “We knew Sagan and some other guys would want to ride for the stage and would cover it.”
The little show of force has nevertheless made Porte the favourite for stage five to La Planche des Belles Filles, the first serious climb of this year’s race.
But Froome warned his friend and former team-mate he would have it all to do to take yellow off Thomas. “He’d have to make up 35 seconds on me and 45 seconds on Geraint,” he said. “That’s certainly going to take some doing on a six-kilometre climb.”