It was an unusual Queen stage of Etolie de Besseges, as a leading group with multiple GC favourites rode away from the peloton before the climb due to huge crosswinds. Trek-Segafredo put all thekr eggs in the Mattias Skjelmose basket with Jacopo Mosca, Mads Pedersen and Toms Skujiņš giving their best to keep the gap as big as possible. In the end, the Trek-Segafredo team-time-trial effort paid off, as the young Dane won on Le Mont Bouquet and will start the final stage in the leader’s jersey.
It was the only uphill finish in Etoile de Besseges. Le Mont Bouquet has been already used in the 2020 and 2022 editions and it is steep enough to make big gaps in the GC. 4.7 kilometres of 8.9% gradient with a difficult middle section is sufficiently hard for an early February race.
Due to the crosswinds, the peloton split before the final climb with a few climbers making it in the group – Pierre Latour, Pavel Sivakov, Neilson Powless and Mattias Skjelmose Jensen. Trek-Segafredo was the driving force in the first group as the ever versatile Pedersen, Skujiņš and Mosca did their best to increase the gap to the peloton, with this group starting Le Mont Bouquet 1 minute and 20 seconds before the second group.
The peloton was not organised in chasing as there were both no big teams interested in catching the leading group and Arkea-Samsic (Kevin Vaquelin) and Groupama-FDJ (Thibaut Pinot) lacking the fire power against the Trek-Segafredo trio.
The race leader Arnaud De Lie is in great shape lately. After every big sprinter was dropped in Stage 3, the young Belgian was strong enough to return to the first group and win in a dominant fashion from the small bunch. In Stage 4 De Lie again was showing impressive strength as he was trying to hold the wheel as long as possible with the climbers at the base of Le Mont Bouquet. With 3.7 km to go, GP de Marseille winner Powless attacked and dropped Sivakov, Skjelmose, Latour and De Lie. A few hundred metres later the young Bull lost contact with the climbers but kept going as hard as possible.
Skjelmose Jensen had big pressure on his shoulders as his teammates created a perfect chance for him to win the stage and take the GC lead. The young Dane bridged to Powless and kept going with the American until the finish. In the last hundred metres, Skjelmose attacked and was first into the last corner, just as Tobias Johannesen had done against Vine in 2022. The finish line was right after the last bend and Powless was powerless to come round the Dane.
Kevin Vauquelin was the fastest climber from the peloton and finished sixth. He beat Skjelmose’s time by nine seconds but the Frenchman missed the big move. Arnaud De Lie, despite his huge muscle mass compared to the lightweight climbers, finished 8th, only 94 seconds behind the stage winner and dropped down to fifth place in GC. No one could have expected such an outcome before the race.
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Vauquelin set the fastest time on the climb and outclimbed Thibaut Pinot by 11 seconds, whilst Skjelmose lost by 46 seconds to the 2022 record time. However, it was a very hard day before the climb. Arnaud de Lie spent 3540 kilojoules in just three hours, which is more than 15.13 kj/kg/h. Those pivotal and painful three hours in the saddle before Le Mont Bouquet and fatigue resistance was extremely important for this stage.
De Lie’s Strava power file shows that he pushed 434 watts for 15:49 minutes or 5.56 w/kg (with an input weight of 78 kg). Our estimations, which are normalised for 60 kg riders, show De Lie did 5.66 w/kg etalon, which is close to his power meter’s etalon numbers as a 78 kg rider needs to push less power on this climb to match the speed of a 60 kg rider.
It was huge crosswinds on the climb, which did not really help or hinder the climbers significantly. With no wind conditions, the climbing time would be perhaps 5 seconds slower.
This was one of the best climbing efforts by Skjelmose. His top pure w/kg performance was in Tour of Deutschland 2022, where he did 6.21 w/kg for 27:55 min but the stage before Schauinsland was way easier than before Le Mont Bouquet.
Etoile de Besseges will end with a short time trial, which includes a 2-kilometre 7%+ gradient hill at the end. Skjelmose and Powless will battle out for the GC win and also have a good shot to win the stage. Pedersen came second in this time trial to Ganna last year and seems to be in great shape, whilst Arnaud De Lie will try to impress with another strong performance and keep his spot in the Top 5 of GC.