On a slight uphill ramp and into a strong headwind at the conclusion of the 195km stage from La Baule to Sarzeau, it was the German veteran Greipel who launched an early and powerful sprint – only for Quick-Step Floors tyro Gaviria to show his class.
Darting from the wheel of his trusty lead-out man Max Richeze, Gaviria surged past Lotto Soudal’s Greipel and then denied the world champion Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) his own second victory.
Watch the stunning sprint finish as Gaviria takes on Greipel and Sagan
Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Germany’s Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) completed the top five as Belgium’s Greg van Avermaet (BMC) retained the yellow jersey on a largely uneventful day in north-west France.
A nasty high-speed pile-up in the middle of the peloton with five kilometres remaining caused devastation and held up, amongst other, GC riders Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin).
While Colombia’s Uran – second in last year’s Tour – was able to rejoin the peloton, the Russian was not so lucky, coming home 59 seconds down to put a dent in his GC prospects. Ireland's Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates) and Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) were also involved but did not lose any time.
With the entirety of the day’s four-man break not neutralised until the pack zipped through the flame rouge with one kilometre remaining, the scene was set for a fierce sprint showdown between the peloton’s fast men. And if they didn’t disappoint, it was 23-year-old Gaviria who showed just why he is viewed as the future of sprinting.
Gaviria: 'Sagan is one of the greatest riders ... I'm pleased to be competing against him'
“This was a particularly tough one because we didn’t have any help to control the race and the breakaway today and the road went a little bit uphill at the finish,” Gaviria said.
We’re really happy. I’d like to thank all my team-mates for all their hard work for this victory. Max [Richeze] did a really great job at the end. We all know that Peter Sagan is one of the greatest riders in the peloton so I’m really proud to be able to beat him.
Having also led the peloton through the intermediate sprint earlier in the stage, Gaviria closed the gap to just four points at the top of the point classification to pile the pressure on Sagan in what is shaping up to be a fierce battle for the green jersey.
In the fight for yellow – put temporarily on hold before back-to-back rolling stages in Brittany – Van Avermaet is level on time with his American team-mate Tejay Van Garderen while Welshman Geraint Thomas of Team Sky retained his third place in the standings, three seconds back.
FOUR-MAN BREAK: After their abject showing in Monday’s team time trial – where they finished in last place more than three minutes down on winners BMC – French wildcard team Cofidis placed two riders in an early break.
Dimitri Claeys and Anthony Perez rode clear with Jerome Cousin (Direct Energie) and Guillaume van Keirsbulck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) in a move that included two Frenchmen and two Belgians ahead of the World Cup semi-final involving those same two nations.
The quartet built up a maximum lead of almost eight minutes as the race left the Brittany coast and headed inland on a loop through the Loire-Atlantique department before returning to the coast and the finish in Sarzeau, the town whose mayor is none other than UCI president David Lappartient.
Van Keirsbulck rode through the intermediate sprint in pole position before Perez took the solitary KOM point on the Cote de Saint-Jean-la-Poterie – although it was not enough for the Frenchman to wrest the polka dot jersey from the back of New Zealand’s Dion Smith (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).
The gap was down to three minutes as Claeys led the break through the bonus sprint 38km from the finish – and the advantage disappeared fast once a Belgian alliance between the Quick-Step Floors and Lotto Soudal teams manifested itself through the sturdy legs of Tim De Clercq and Thomas De Gendt on the front of the pack.
Tensions rose as Quick-Step struggled to find any allies in reeling in escapees, who still held a gap of 45 seconds when the peloton was torn in two by a large pile-up with 5km remaining.
Huge crash disrupts the peloton 5km from the finish
Frenchman Axel Domont (Ag2R-La Mondiale) was forced out of the race after hitting the ground hard, depriving compatriot Romain Bardet of a key team-mate early in the opening week of the race. Belgium’s Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) fell badly but managed to complete the stage in last place, some 10 minutes after Gaviria celebrated the second victory of a stunning debut Tour.
Van Keirsbulck was the last of the escapees to be caught – just inside the final kilometre – before the Quick-Step train whirred into action, concluding with a staggering double-kick from Gaviria.
As the Colombian punched the air, Britain’s Mark Cavendish was left to rue another misfiring finish after the Dimension Data found himself boxed in and cut off by a rival.
A frustrated Cavendish waved his arm in disgust as he sat up and rolled home in twenty-first place, just ahead of a cluster of race favourites including the defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky), fellow Brit Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), the Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) and Movistar’s holy trinity of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde: big guns avoiding trouble and keeping their powder dry for the challenges ahead.
COMING UP: The race continues on Wednesday with the undulating 204.5km Stage 5 from Lorient to Quimper, which features five lower-category climbs and some really testing terrain.
Relentlessly up and down, the longest stage so far should bid farewell to the pure sprinters and encourage puncheurs, baroudeurs and rouleurs alike to fight for a break. The hills, narrow roads and even a few cobbles will have the GC riders on red alert: a bad day or untimely mechanical here could prove very costly.
This classic Brittany stage features a key climb of the Boucles de l'Aulne race and has something of the brutality of the Ardennes about it. Expect to see local boys Fortuneo-Samsic very prominent.