As Elia Viviani claimed his first career Tour de France stage win by a wheel length in Nancy, the debate continued as to the size and significance of the margin that separated Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal 24 hours earlier.
Viviani edged out Alexander Kristoff and Caleb Ewan in the first pure sprint of this year’s Tour, giving the Italian the Tour victory he craved to go with his five career Giro d’Italia stages and three in La Vuelta.
The sprint finish meant there was no change in the general classification, which Viviani’s Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mate Julian Alaphilippe leads after his superb solo attack into Epernay on Monday.
As Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford was happy to tell anyone, Alaphilippe has “not a chance” of keeping yellow through the mountains, so it is the gaps further down that matter, and the one that has caught the eye is the five-second cushion that separates Bernal in sixth from Thomas in seventh.
That was the product of a slight gap between the pair as they crossed the line in Epernay, enough for them to be deemed in different groups on the road.
The time gap may be small, the actual margin on the road smaller, but as the two men vie for leadership of Team Ineos, the defending champion could have done without conceding it.
“It is what it is,” Thomas said. “No-one wins the Tour on five-second sprint finishes but obviously it would be better not to have lost that.
“I was hoping just to slowly drift back a bit and the next thing I know no-one is coming past me and I was like ‘I have to try and close this gap’ but it was a bit late by then.
“Obviously five seconds – it is nice not to lose that. If I am off the podium by four I might be more disappointed.”
Regardless of what the time sheets said, Brailsford seemed ready to deny the gap existed at all.
“It wasn’t a five-second gap though, was it?” he said. “I think way too much has been made of it, if I am honest. If anyone understands the sport, you watch the sport, there is a 30-metre gap. ‘G’ sat up a little bit, he thought people were trying to come over him and that is it.
“People are trying to make out that it is a five-second gap and it is not….It makes no difference.”
The difference on the day was made by Viviani, who had the speed and strength to hold off the hard-charging Kristoff and Ewan.
It was sweet reward for the 30-year-old, who had been frustrated to leave the Giro empty-handed in May, and found the finishing incline of Saturday’s opening stage of the Tour in Brussels too difficult.
“It means a lot,” said Viviani. “Probably I can’t believe it still. It was a big goal of the year. We missed the first chance and put the yellow on.
“But I think after Julian’s phenomenal ride yesterday, it’s a moment when you switch on the team. Today we did a perfect job, you saw how the lead-out did.
“I’m pretty happy. I was missing this win. I won in the Giro and the Vuelta and now in the Tour de France, that means a lot to me.”
The rest of the peloton were simply happy to make it through a sketchy final five kilometres of the 213.5km run from Reims unscathed, with the route designers sending them barrelling down a wide dual carriageway before a roundabout funnelled them into a tight left-hander two kilometres from the line.
“That’s the problem with these 200km days,” said Team Ineos road captain Luke Rowe. “They kind of tend to be a lot of rolling around but then a hectic final.
“It’s another day ticked off where we’re all still on our bikes and we’ve still got our skin.”
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