Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol) soloed into the overall lead at the Eneco Tour after attacking from a vastly reduced peloton late on stage six.
The undulating terrain from Heerlen to Aywaille, which included three partial ascents of La Redoute, made for an attack-filled race with plenty trying their luck as the peloton was fractured.
It was Wellens who struck the decisive blow late on, however, the Belgian – who twice was narrowly denied stage victories at the Giro d’Italia – bridging to a leading group containing Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ.fr) and Alexandre Pichot (Team Europcar) before soloing to the stage win.
A late counter-attack by overall leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Shimano) and second-placed Lars Boom (Belkin Pro Cycling) reduced the Belgian’s advantage but he still finished some 50 seconds clear to close in on the biggest victory of his career.
Earlier in the day, a large breakaway group earned a gap after some six kilometres of racing – Alex Dowsett (Movistar) among the riders to go clear.
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Nathan Haas and Nick Nuyens (Garmin-Sharp), Moreno Moser (Cannondale) and Davide Cimolai (Lampre-Merida) also made the break, with Kenneth van Bilsen (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and Kevin van Melsen (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) rounding off a strong group.
With the likes of Boonen and Dowsett powering the break, their advantage stretched out to almost eight minutes after the first 50 kilometres of racing.
The strong move was quickly brought back into check by the Giant-Shimano-led peloton, however, and the undulating course quickly took its toll on the front men.
There were still more than 40 kilometres remaining when the group began to break up – Haas attempting to go it alone.
BMC Racing took charge of the bunch as Giant-Shimano weakened, hoping for a repeat of Greg van Avermaet’s stage five success, but as Haas’ also faded it was Pichot who broke clear.
With Dumoulin isolated, and the peloton being cut to size – Boom, Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) all the right side of the split – the pace was ramped up at the front.
Of the riders challenging overall, Manuel Quinziato (BMC Racing) was the best-placed to have been distanced by the bunch but with the American team still well represented in the peloton they and Belkin pulled hard on the front.
A counter-attack by Terpstra was brought into check, before Jeannesson bridged to Pichot and the two worked well together to retain their advantage.
Posing no overall threat, they were allowed to go clear but when Wellens delivered his attack the danger of his move was not immediately spotted.
After joining the two leaders, Wellens attacked again inside the final ten kilometres and built up a healthy solo lead over the pursuing group.
Dumoulin finally responded, his acceleration being matched by Boom, van Avermaet and Andriy Grivko (Astana) as they looked to claw back the Belgian’s advantage.
Wellens was to prove unstoppable, however – with his stage win proving enough, thanks to the time bonus on offer for first place, to move in to the overall lead.
It leaves the 23-year-old in pole position to seal overall victory on the final day – a win which would also represent Lotto-Belisol’s first overall WorldTour success in their current incarnation.
Eneco Tour 2014: stage six – result
1) Tim Wellens (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol – 4.28.19hrs
2) Lars Boom (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +50”
3) Greg van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing +52”
4) Tom Dumoulin (NED) – Giant-Shimano – ST
5) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +56”
6) Andriy Grivko (UKR) – Astana Pro Team +58”
7) Jelle Vanendert (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol +59”
8) Niki Terpstra (NED) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep – ST
9) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing
10) Marco Marcato (ITA) – Cannondale
1) Tim Wellens (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol – 21.03.27hrs
2) Lars Boom (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +7”
3) Tom Dumoulin (NED) – Giant-Shimano +13”
4) Andriy Grivko (UKR) – Astana +33”
5) Greg van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing +34”
6) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +38”
7) Niki Terpstra (NED) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +45”
8) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing +48”
9) Jens Keukeleire (BEL) – Orica-GreenEDGE +56”
10) Sebastian Langeveld (NED) – Garmin-Sharp +1.04