Mark Cavendish won stage 13 of the Tour de France on Friday in Saint Amand Montrond. Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) made a decisive, late-stage split and out-kicked the 14-man breakaway for his 25th career Tour stage win.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) was second in the 173-kilometer leg from Tours, and Bauke Mollema (Belkin) was third.
The top two riders in the GC, Chris Froome (Sky) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) were the big losers on Friday. Valverde flatted out of the peloton as crosswinds ripped the race apart, eventually ceding more than seven minutes. Froome missed the late split that included third overall Mollema and fourth overall Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), giving up more than a minute.
With eight days of racing remaining, including nine major climbs and a climbing time trial, Froome leads Mollema in the overall by 2:28. Contador is third, at 2:45.
“Again, another reminder to us to stay on our toes on a stage like this,” said Froome. “Definitely, it wasn’t easy for anyone out there I hope. This weekend we’ve got a lumpy stage before we get up to Mont Ventoux on Sunday and it should be some exciting racing.”
The early break
Six riders attacked nearly from kilometer 0 and took a maximum advantage of just over four minutes: Yohann Gene (Europcar), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Luis Maté (Cofidis), Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida), Kris Boeckmans (Vacansoleil-DCM), and Cyril Lemoine (Sojasun). Their TV time would be limited, however, as an explosive race for the stage and the GC was brewing behind them.
Fifty-six kilometers into the stage, Omega Pharma started ramping up the pace at the front of the peloton. With a stiff crosswind buffeting the riders, the peloton went into panic mode, riders grasping to the wheels in front of them.
Immediately, the peloton fractured into pieces.
“We talked about it a little bit, we knew the wind was strong, and I said to Gert [Steegmans], ‘It’s strong enough to break it now,’” said Cavendish. Tony [Martin] said to wait, but Gert just went. It wasn’t hard enough to break it then, but we just kept going and Saxo went later. I’m so proud, the guys rode out of their skin today.”
Three echelons formed, with Cavendish and his Omega Pharma teammates leading the first group. Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), who has won three stages at this year’s Tour — including Thursday’s stage 12 in a head-to-head sprint against Cavendish — was caught in the second group.
“It’s never a boring stage, especially today in the crosswind,” said Omega Pharma’s Michal Kwiatkowski, who defended his lead in best young rider classification on Friday. “We tried to split it up; especially as a Belgian team, we like to do that.”
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) was part of the large third group on the road.
Froome was able to remain with the first echelon. His teammates escorted him near the front of the group shortly after it formed, but this was a move for the stage and Sky could watch as Omega Pharma went to the work of distancing Kittel. Sagan and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) were also there, along with each of the top eight riders on the GC.
Once the groups were established, Omega Pharma traded pulling duties with Belkin and Saxo at the front as the gap between the first and second groups extended to over a minute. The gap between the echelons and the breakaway, meanwhile, started to fall with the fast pace. The bunch caught the escapees with just under 100km left.
With the gap hovering around a minute and major GC and stage implications possible, race organizers would not allow team cars between the first and second echelons; only two neutral support cars and an official race vehicle were allowed in as the race situation developed, meaning team support was slow to arrive — something that would soon foil Valverde’s chances at the Tour podium.
Valverde falls out of the top 10
Valverde, who started the day second in the GC, at 3:25 back, was the victim of an ill-timed mechanical with 84km left. Three of his teammates dropped back and one of them sacrificed his rear wheel, taking a change from Mavic neutral support and rejoining his teammates quickly.
The foursome was stuck between the first and second groups, seeing Valverde’s podium spot ride away up the road. Another teammate — Rui Costa — joined them, and the quintet began to team time trial its way across the open and flat road.
At the front of the first group, meanwhile, Belkin increased the pace as Valverde and his teammates tried to return. The tactic worked, as the Movistar riders ran out of gas and went back to the second group with 76km left.
“As a team, we’re used to riding in the crosswind,” said Cavendish. “We’re good at it, we’re strong. With Belkin, it was the perfect combination.”
The second group continued its fierce pursuit to catch the main pack, but with 57km remaining, the gap was 1:15.
Belkin kept the pressure on and the gap vacillated between :45 and 1:30. The Dutch squad threw Robert Gesink into the wind and he emptied himself, falling off the pace hit 46km to go.
“They dropped Valverde and wanted to gain time on him, so that was their main goal,” said Kwiatkowski.
Froome stayed safely tucked in directly behind the front echelon, allowing Belkin and Omega Pharma to work hard for GC gains and the stage win. Further back, Richie Porte (Sky) appeared to have difficulty staying in the group.
As the wind continued to batter the race, the front group split into three echelons.
Valverde and three teammates attempted again to bridge to the leaders, but were unable. They soon found themselves back in the chase group, 1:50 down with 41km to go.
Five kilometers later, the gap was 2:18. The Spaniard’s race for the GC was finished.
“Alejandro had a puncture and it was just at the wrong moment, really. It took a little time to get it sorted and he could simply not get it back,” said Movistar director José Luis Jaimerena. “It should have helped [having four teammates], but the peloton at the front were working really hard and they were never going to get it back. Credit to the boys for doing everything they possibly could to get Alejandro back, but it was just impossible to get back.”
Saxo makes a big move for Contador
Omega Pharma and Belkin continued rotating at the front, keeping the status quo.
It wouldn’t last long, however, and Saxo went to the front and drilled the pace, driving a wedge back to Froome, who had two teammates in what became the first chase group. The leaders were soon just 14 riders.
“I was born in the area, so I knew how today could be. We didn’t do it before because Omega and Belkin were going full gas,” said Saxo director Philippe Maduit. “It was impossible to pull with the flat tire of Valverde, it’s not fair play. … When he lost more than two minutes, we refocused.”
Cavendish nearly missed the move, launching off teammate Kwiatkowski to latch on.
“I nearly missed it,” he said. “I managed to just get in. You’ve got five seconds or it’s over. You’ve got five seconds or you won’t make it.”
BMC Racing and Katusha each contributed to the chase, but a cross-tailwind pushed the leaders along. With Sagan, Cavendish, and Contador in the split, Cannondale, Omega Pharma, and Saxo pushed hard. In his green jersey, Sagan rotated through with teammate Maciej Bodnar, as well as Omega Pharma’s Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel.
Contador had Roman Kreuziger, Michael Rogers, Nicolas Roche, Daniele Bennati, and Matteo Tosatto there to work. Rogers, a three-time time trial world champion, said he made a “slit-second decision” to attack in the wind.
“When the opportunity arose for us, we took it and it went well. We took back some time and it’s not over,” he said. “I saw everyone was tired with roughly 30km to go, so I said to the boys, ‘let’s go,’ and we did.”
Mollema and Ten Dam made the group. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) enjoyed a free ride as well.
“The guys from Saxo were pulling really hard because we were pulling all day and they were behind us,” said Mollema. “They were still really strong.”
The race was on for Saxo. The six riders from the Danish squad took over the pace-making and with 20km to go, the gap was above 20 seconds. A kilometer later, it was above 30 seconds.
Valverde was more than four minutes behind.
Froome was boxed in and could not move forward in the chase group until the gap was established.
“I tried to get him out, but he couldn’t quite follow me,” said Sky’s Ian Stannard. Missing the big engine of Edvald Boasson Hagen, who abandoned Thursday after suffering multiple fractures, Froome saw the gap go up to 40 seconds with 15km to go. Peter Kennaugh emptied himself in the chase for Froome, and was gone.
Stannard and Geraint Thomas, who is riding through the Tour with a fractured pelvis, continued to work for Sky, which rotated with Ag2r La Mondiale and Katusha.
But the pair was soon finished, fighting to stay on the group. Froome was down to no teammates to work, and was forced to rely on the other teams to chase.
Two Ag2r La Mondiale riders continued to chase, but with Omega Pharma and Cannondale behind them to block Froome or any other riders from moving into the rotation.
With 5km to go, the gap topped a minute and Valverde found himself seven minutes back.
Terpstra led out the sprint, Sagan on his wheel. Cavendish tucked in behind the Slovak champion. Sagan swung off in the final 300 meters, pushing Cavendish into the wind, and the Manxman took advantage. Sagan tried to follow, but had no answer and Cavendish had his second win of the 100th Tour.
“With Sagan, I knew if I stayed behind him, I’d be able to get it,” said Cavendish.
Omega Pharma boss Patrick Lefevere, who has has sharp words for his team at times in 2013, was thrilled at the finish.
“I can only take off my hat for my team. They did a great job,” he said. “Cycling is sometimes like boxing: the one who hits first can hit well.”
Sagan appeared to simply run out of gas in the finale.
“I had to manage in a better way the finale, because I must be on Cavendish’s wheel, not him on mine,” said Sagan. “I’m happy to make the front group in a such stressful and hard stage, but not for the result. I don’t like to make mistakes, even if it’s hard to win against Cavendish in a fast sprint. Anyway, I gained a useful experience for the future. I’m disappointed but I hope to have a new chance tomorrow to get even.”
Froome lost the GC bout on Friday, and came across the line in the Greipel-led chase group, 1:09 behind Cavendish. His yellow jersey was safe, but Mollema had pulled into second overall, 2:28 back. Contador moved to a dangerously close 2:45, third overall.
“We didn’t expect to make so much damage. There was a moment that we almost gave up. It was 10 seconds, 10 seconds, but they kept pushing the pedals. It’s an incredible demonstration of the strength of this team,” said Contador. “The Tour is far from over. A thousand things can happen any day.”
For Maduit, Friday was a clear sign that clever tactics could be the undoing of what, after Wednesday’s time trial, seemed an impossible gap to Froome.
“Sky is Sky and Saxo-Tinkoff is Saxo-Tinkoff,” said Maduit. “I have a lot of respect for Chris, he is doing something amazing. He is far above everyone else, but with some tactic, we can try something and maybe make something happen.”
The 100th Tour de France continues Saturday with the 191km 14th stage, from Saint Pourcain sur Sioule to Lyon. An appetizer to Sunday’s Mont Ventoux finish, the leg to Lyon features seven categorized climbs, including the Cat. 3 ascents of the Côte de Thizy les Bourgs and Col du Pilon, 113km and 126km into the stage, respectively.
Associate editor Jason Devaney contributed to this report.