Tadej Pogacar sent out an ominous warning to rivals after the UAE Team Emirates rider passed his first big test of this year's race on Stage 5 of the Tour de France on Wednesday.
The Slovenian finished 51 seconds behind stage winner Simon Clarke of Australia but gained time on all the main contenders.
Pogacar, seeking a third Tour title in a row, was expected to suffer on the 19 kilometres of cobbles peppering the 157-km ride from Lille, but came away delighted with his form.
“It was a really good day for me, I didn't have any bad luck and I felt good on the cobbles,” said Pogacar. “I could not stay strong until the end but I tried.”
Pogacar jumped away from the group of leading contenders with Belgian Jasper Stuyven and built a lead of almost a minute before running out of gas in the finale.
“That was a really hard day,” he added. “Quite stressful in the first part, and the second part was really tough. It was a lot of power on the pedals through the day – the cobbles were dusty and dangerous.
“I'm just happy this day is over and I rode well … But for sure it's a confidence booster. I have good sensations.”
Israel Premier Tech rider Clarke prevailed in a lung-busting sprint finish to beat Dutchman Taco van der Hoorn and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen, who were second and third, respectively.
“After the winter I had when I had no team, to then have Israel ring me up and say 'we'll give you that chance' just gives you such a reality check to make the most of every opportunity,” Clarke said.
“I've come out in every race swinging. The stages I've won in the Vuelta before and the jersey I got in the Giro were all in the first week, so I thought maybe today's the day.
“I still can't believe I got it on the line there. Taco was well ahead of me with less than 50m to go. I was cramping in both legs so I lined up the biggest throw I could possibly do. I need to watch the replay, I can't quite believe it.”
Wout van Aert retained the overall lead by 17mins 22secs at the end of a bad day for his Jumbo-Visma team, with Primoz Roglic, runner-up in 2020 and one of the pre-race favourites dislocating a shoulder following a crash involving Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan.
It was popped back in by his team staff but Roglic is now already trailing Pogacar – who is fourth, 19 seconds down on van Aert – by more than two minutes.
Van Aert also hit the deck but ground through the whole stage and helped his teammates to chase down all day long.
“We gave everything. Of course it was not a good day for us with the crashes and mechanicals but we showed that we're able to work hard when things do not go our way,” said Van Aert.
Among the other favourites, last year's runner-up Jonas Vingegaard, also from Jumbo-Visma, finished 13 seconds behind Pogacar after a long chase following a mechanical problem.
Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion, also limited the damage when he finished in Vingegaard's group.