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As the peloton barreled into Nancy Tuesday, the yellow jersey was at the front of the bunch with 1km remaining. Julian Alaphilippe wasn’t trying to again go clear and win the stage, as he’d done the previous day, but rather to set up Deceuninck–Quick-Step sprinter Elia Viviani.
Stage 4 delivered the first clean field sprint of this Tour de France; the opening stage saw a crash with 1.5km to go that disrupted lead-out trains and saw Jumbo-Visma’s Dylan Groenewegen, winner of two stages last year, on the ground. Groenewegen’s lead-out man Mike Teunissen willed himself to victory, and the maillot jaune, just ahead of Peter Sagan and Caleb Ewan, but it was not the sprint many had expected to see.
Groenewegen didn’t look to be recovered from the crash on Tuesday, finishing a distant fifth — and just ahead of Teunissen — but it’s hard to imagine anyone beating Viviani after the perfect lead-out his Deceuninck–Quick-Step team provided.
“My lead-out men Michael Morkov and Max Richeze did a perfect job,’ Viviani said. “I only had to finish it off in the last 180 meters. I just focused on my lead-out today.”
Deceuninck–Quick-Step isn’t the only team in the race with a lead-out train. Groenewegen has Teunissen, Amund Grøndahl Jansen, and Wout van Aert to bring him into position. Alexander Kristoff, who ordinarily would have ridden as lead-out man for injured UAE Emirates teammate Fernando Gaviria, has Dane Sven Erik Bystrom and young Belgian Jasper Philipsen to guide him to the sprint. At Lotto-Soudal, Ewan relies on Jasper De Buyst and Roger Kluge.
Dimension Data’s Lars Bak, Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg, Ben King and Edvald Boasson Hagen also came together in the final kilometers to try to set up Italian Giacomo Nizzolo.
Alaphilippe’s unexpected work under the flamme rouge came after teammate Kasper Asgreen had a heaving crash on Stage 3 and was relieved of lead-out duties. The yellow jersey wasn’t on the front long, but long enough for Morkov, the Danish champion, and Richeze, the Argentinean champ to assert themselves at the front.
Morkov briefly sat behind Van Aert, whose role is to deliver Teunissen and Groenewgen into position, before the Dane shifted over onto Boasson Hagen’s wheel. To the left of the Deceuninck–Quick-Step train, Ewan was poised behind Kluge. Behind Viviani, Sagan lurked on his own, surfing wheels as he so often does.
Morkov rode at the front from 900 meters to go until 350 meters to go, when Richeze took over. As the road took a lefthand bend and Richeze drifted to his left, Ewan slotted in behind Viviani, bumping Sagan off of Viviani’s wheel.
Viviani positioned himself to come around the left side of his teammate, putting Ewan close to the barriers and without a clear opening. Sagan had further to go than Ewan, but he had an opening, while Kristoff was even with Viviani to his right, but would be sprinting into the wind.
Sagan jumped onto Kristoff’s wheel but he was already a bike length behind as Richeze eased up and Viviani launched his sprint at 180 meters from the line. Viviani finished ahead of Kristoff, while Ewan squeaked through on the left to beat Sagan in a photo finish for third.
“The fastest won today,” Sagan said. “My concern was to stay on Elia’s wheel. But Deceuninck obviously has the best train.”
Viviani didn’t win by a lot, but it was enough, and as the only rider with two lead-out men in the final 400 meters, it was clear what had made the difference.
“I have a strong team around me who believes so much in me, and they delivered a perfect lead-out,” Viviani said. “You saw the yellow jersey go when Morkov called him in to position. That was important, and for me so special to see the yellow jersey do it.
“With one kilometer to go I felt that everything was going perfect and was really confident. Then, when Kristoff anticipated the sprint, I was ready to go, but Max’s experience played a huge role and I waited a bit before opening my sprint close to the barriers.”
The win came as redemption for Viviani, who lost his lead-out on the opening stage in Brussels after a disappointing Giro d’Italia, where he left empty-handed after six field sprints while wearing the Italian national champion’s jersey. It was the second stage win in two days for Deceuninck–Quick-Step, and with the win Viviani became the 18th active rider to register stage wins at all three Grand Tours.
“I hope this is only the start,” Viviani said. “I saw my error on the first stage, I lost Max’s wheel and I lost the chance to get in the yellow jersey, but you learn. I wasn’t aggressive enough, it was totally my fault. Then we almost won the team time trial. It was pretty traumatic for me, the first days. But now I have a win in all three Grand Tours. I’m really happy, I’m emotional. All the work you do always pays off with one win like that one. I feel at the top now.”
Including the final stage on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, there are likely six more opportunities for the other sprinters and their lead-out trains, namely Jumbo-Visma.
“It was difficult to find each other in the hectic final,” Van Aert said. “It was my job to keep the lead-out train in front on the narrow section in the last kilometers. Amund and Dylan lost us along the way. That’s a shame, because we have a strong lead-out. We have complete confidence in Dylan. He has proven several times that when he has the space in the peloton, he can finish it off. We’ll keep trying.”