Chris Froome chose the appropriately nautical setting of the coastal town of Ajaccio to fire an impressive first warning shot across his rivals' bows in the second stage of the Tour de France yesterday.
An acceleration by the 28-year-old Briton saw him briefly go clear on a short, punchy climb near the finish. The Team Sky rider's late attack, with around 12 kilometres to go, was always unlikely to have paid off, and after a fast, sweeping descent the Briton was soon caught again by the main pack. But even if any potential time gain by Froome would have been minimal with so little distance left to the finish, that was all but irrelevant.
The subliminal message from Froome was intimidation, pure and simple – if he can be so strong on a short, apparently irrelevant climb, how much more easily could he drop his rivals when the big ascents start with Saturday's first mountain stage in the Pyrenees?
"It's always good to keep people on their toes," Froome said, "The main objective for us was to stay out of trouble today, stay at the front, and not lose any time to the main contenders," he said.
"I knew the descent was tricky and dangerous. I was on the front with Richie [Porte] and I thought it might be a good time to push on a little bit, get ahead and take the descent at my own pace and stay out of trouble."
A break of six attacked after Froome was caught and Belgium's Jan Bakelants sheered away with two kilometres to go to cross the line first, despite the chasing peloton snapping at his heels.
The Briton's statement of intent helped overshadow what had been a worrying day for his Sky team-mates, with four dropped on the gruelling mid-stage climbs of central Corsica that saw sprinters like Saturday's winner Marcel Kittel and Britain's Mark Cavendish go out the back and lose over 17 minutes. Two of the Sky riders in difficulties, Britain's Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, were caught up and injured in crashes on Saturday, but Belarus climber Kanstantsin Sivtsov and Spanish all-rounder David Lopez's failure to stay in the front group was more unexpected and potentially more worrying.
However, in a year where the traditional opening prologue – where the contenders race flat out in a bid to score psychological points off each other – has been lacking, Froome's attack both took the focus a little off his team-mates and allowed him to confirm his status as favourite for the remaining three weeks.
Whether all of his squad are in equally top condition should become clear in tomorrow's team time trial in Nice.
While Froome's main objectives lay further up the road, Bakelants can already say mission accomplished about his 2013 Tour, after he claimed both the stage win and the race lead yesterday.
A winner of the Tour de L'Avenir – the race which acts as a showcase for up-and-coming professionals – back in 2008, the Belgian's career has been a long series of near-misses that have left him bereft of victories for nearly six years. But his gutsy attack late on, when the others in the breakaway group of six briefly hesitated, finally gave him a much-needed victory.
"I have had a lot of bad luck, two operations in the last year alone, breaking my knee and elbow in one big race last year, crashes and falls close to the finish and wrecking other chances. My team only gave me a Tour start right at the last minute. But today I hit the jackpot," the RadioShack pro said.
"I hadn't really decided to get in the break but it worked and I still wasn't going at 100 percent," Bakelants added. "Then when they slowed a little I thought 'go for it, today could be the nicest day of your life'."
Lying second, just one second behind Bakelants overall, Britain's David Millar remains very much in the frame for the coveted yellow jersey.
The difficult, constantly undulating terrain of today's final stage through Corsica could well be perfect for the Scot – who was fourth in Saturday's convoluted sprint and in the thick of the action yesterday – to spring an ambush.
Or, perhaps, Froome will dazzle his rivals again.Reuse content