Jonathan Milan (Bahrain Victorious) launched his sprint from distance, but as on the first day in Beihai, the Italian opened his effort a touch too soon and he had to settle for fourth after leaving a gap along the barriers for Molano, who threaded his way through expertly to take his fifth win of the season.
Molano won a stage of the Vuelta a España in Zaragoza, and he carried that late-season form to China. His UAE Team Emirates squad were active in shutting down the dangerous four-man break that threatened to upset the sprinters, and he delivered a well-timed finish to claim the spoils.
“It took me a while to recover from the Vuelta, but now I’m feeling good and strong,” Molano said after the podium ceremony.
“Today the team rode hard on the climb and that's what I wanted – I wanted my rivals to arrive a bit worn out at the end. The team worked perfectly today, and I'm happy to have put the UAE stamp on it at the finish.”
The 209.6km run from Liuzhou lent itself to the sprinters, though the day’s three classified climbs gave the break a fighting chance of staying clear. Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Deceuninck) was part of the four-man move that animated the racing and he spent much of the afternoon in as virtual race leader before they were swept up in the final 7km.
Milan Vader (Jumbo-Visma), who had taken the leader's jersey from Bondt on Sunday's summit finish in Nongla, finished safely in the peloton to retain the overall lead, six seconds clear of Rémy Rochas (Cofidis) and 14 up on Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost).
Vader is now on the brink of overall victory, but Monday belonged entirely to Molano, who scored wins at the Tour of China and Tour of Taihu Lake early in his career. Now ending his fifth season at UAE Team Emirates, he has managed to carve space despite the team’s emphasis on GC.
“I think it's nice that I've earned this status year after year,” he said. “I have worked very hard to get to this place. It's satisfying and I hope to continue to do well for years to come.”
How it unfolded
Milan Vader’s triumph in the uphill finale at Nongla the previous afternoon put the Dutchman into the red jersey and on the cusp of overall victory, but with Remy Rochas (Cofidis) a mere six seconds down in the standings, Jumbo-Visma were content for an early break to hoover up the time bonuses at the first intermediate sprint on stage 5.
Julius van den Berg (EF Education-EasyPost) and Lukas Pöstlberger (Jayco-Alula) briefly succeeded in forging clear after the race left Liuzhou, but the duo was brought back before the sprint after 24km. Max Walscheid (Cofidis) took the honours ahead of Tim Wellens (UAE Team Emirates), but Rochas failed to register, meaning Vader’s lead remained intact.
Shortly after the sprint, Pöstlberger tried his luck once again, briefly leading a group of six riders off the front, but they were unable to gain any traction on their effort and they were soon swept up. The day’s break eventually took shape after 62km, when the ever-aggressive Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Deceuninck) went clear with Van den Berg and the Bora-Hansgrohe duo of Ryan Mullen and Frederik Wandahl.
De Bondt already led the race for a day before losing the jersey at Nongla, and the Belgian, who began the day 1:32 down, was soon back in the virtual overall lead. The quartet’s lead would continue to yawn outwards all the way to the day’s key obstacles, reaching a maximum of five minutes with a shade over 50km remaining.
The terrain became decidedly more rugged from there, but De Bondt et al managed their advantage well over the category 2 ascent in the Lingui District, and they still had 3:20 in hand on the bunch when they crested the summit of Jinzhu Hill with 34km remaining. Wandahl mathematically sealed the king of the mountains title at the summit, but the bigger prize of the stage was now suddenly in sight, while De Bondt was still just about in the hunt for an improbable return to the red jersey.
Once the sprinters had safely navigated the day’s climbs, however, there was always likely to be an injection in urgency from the peloton, with UAE Team Emirates and Lotto-Dstny among the teams now leading the pursuit. Their efforts brought the gap down to 1:30 with 20km remaining, though the escapees continued to fight gamely on the run-in to Guilin.
The chase continued and ultimately they were swept up with 7km to go, so even though it was a day with three categorised climbs it ultimately was one for the sprinters again.
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