Crosswinds wreaked havoc on the Tour de France today as the race moved across the centre of the country, with the peloton blown into pieces on a day more reminiscent of a Spring Classic than one that on paper looked like being a nailed-on bunch sprint finish. Mark Cavendish took his 25th career stage win, outsprinting Cannondale's Peter Sagan, but otherwise, the script was torn up.
Cavendish's Omega Pharma-Quick Step team forced the initial split 110 kilometres out, and he was in a front group of just 14 riders that formed a little more than 30 kilometres from the finish in Saint-Amand-Montrond - a group, crucially, that was missing race leader Chris Froome, who loses a minute and a quarter, and Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, second overall this morning, who shipped nearly ten minutes to his rivals and plummets down the overall standings.
That move from 30 kilometres out was instigated by Alberto Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff team putting the hammer down as crosswinds came into play once again. The Spaniard, alongside Belkin's Bauke Mollema are the day's two winners on GC; both close the gap on Froome, who came home in a second group.
The absence of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Vasil Kiryienka plus Peter Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas both carrying injuries, seemed to cost Froome dear today and will give renewed heart to his rivals as the race heads towards Mont Ventoux on Sunday then the Alps next week.
The two teams that in General Classification terms were the chief animateurs today - Saxo-Tinkoff and Belkin - have extra cause for celebration tonight, as well as additional motivation to put Froome under more pressure in the days ahead, since both have two riders now in the top five; Saxo-Tinkoff, besides having Contador in third place now, also has Roman Kreuzigeur in fourth, while Belkin have Mollema in second place and Laurens Ten Dam, also in that front group, fifth.
The big loser today is undoubtedly Valverde, the Spaniard suffering a mechanical problem with 86 kilometres still to ride and plummets down the overall standings after losing several minutes, Belkin having joined Omega Pharma-Quick Step at the front of the main group as soon as they sensed that Valverde was in trouble.
The day's combativity award usually goes to an individual rider, but on what was perhaps the most thrilling stage of the 100th edition of the Tour to date, it has been awarded, justfiably, to the entire Omega Pharma-Quick Step team.
Each of the two pivotal moments of today’s stage – the initial move by Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and that later one by Saxo-Tinkoff – were the result of snap decisions taken by the riders themselves on the road.
Cavendish revealed afterwards that aware that Kittel was in a poor position in the peloton, his team mates, led by Gert Steegmans, pushed ahead, others including world time trial champion Tony Martin and French national time trial champion Sylvain Chavanel digging deep to keep the tempo high.
Yet with 50 kilometres left of the 173 kilometre stage from Tours, it seemed as though the group containing three-time stage winner Kittel and, now, Valverde, would manage to get back on; they had reduced the deficit to around 40 seconds.
Once again, however, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Belkin combined forces to grow the gap further, and over the course of the next 10 kilometres or so it became obvious that Kittel would not be rejoining that front group, and that Valverde would not only lose his podium position, but risked falling out of the top ten altogether.
While Movistar seem aggrieved this evening that heir team leader’s woes today had their origin in a mechanical problem and maintain that rival outfits should not have sought to exploit Valverde’s problems, the bare fact is that memories in the peloton are long, and the Spanish outfit itself has not held back from seeking to press home any perceived advantage in similar circumstances in the past.
The later move by Saxo-Tinkoff also resulted from a split-second decision, team members including Michael Rogers and Nicolas Roche consulting with Contador as they realised Froome had drifted back and immediately deciding to go on the offensive.
Cavendish, plus team mate Chavanel, just about made the group; so too did Belkin’s pair of GC hopefuls, Mollema and Ten Dam, but it was Saxo-Tinkoff that had the numbers - Contador, Kreuziguer, Roche, Rogers and Daniele Bennati - and they pressed home their advantage ruthlessly.
Froome, of course, still has a solid lead in the overall standings, but it’s one that looks much more slender this evening with those big mountain stages looming into view.
Moreover, the injuries that have ravaged Team Sky mean that rival teams will smell blood and seek to isolate the yellow jersey and then press home their advantage; if Sir Bradley Wiggins’ progress to the top step of the podium 12 months ago was stately, Froome’s quest to succeed him will be anything but.
Yesterday, following the crash that ruled colleague Edvald Boasson Hagen out of the rest of the race, Froome had warned of the need to remain vigilant; today, on a stage that had “transitional” marked all over it and should have been one for the yellow jersey to come home safely in the bunch, he paid the price for missing that final split.
Whether he will come to rue that in Paris a week on Sunday remains to be seen; today, however, saw what many are calling one of the most thrilling stages of the Tour de France in years, and one that entirely befits the 100th edition of the race.
If you’re near a television this evening, don’t miss the highlights.
Tomorrow's Stage 14 on paper looks like one where a break may stay away as it heads over seven categorised climbs - five of them Category 4, the other two Category 3; today's events underline however that this is perhaps becoming one of the more unpredictable editions of the race in recent years, and more fireworks can be expected.
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