Britain’s Mark Cavendish won an epic 13th stage of the Tour de France on Friday as former two-time winner Alberto Contador closed the gap to yellow jersey holder Chris Froome.
Omega-Pharma sprinter Cavendish, taking his second win of the 100th edition of the race and 25th of his career, dominated a two-up sprint with Slovakian Peter Sagan, who finished several bike lengths behind.
The British champion had been near the front of the main peloton when Contador’s Saxo team turned the screw on Team Sky and caused a split in the pack 31km from the finish.
As the entire peloton struggled with the strong crosswinds on the flat plains of central France, a 14-strong group of frontrunners began to build a lead on the main bunch that grew to 1 minute, 8 seconds by the finish.
With few sprinters of Cavendish’s class among them, the Isle of Man rider won with relative ease.
“In the end it was just Sagan and myself, I was really happy to beat him,” said Cavendish, who was beaten at the line on Thursday when German rival Marcel Kittel claimed his third win of the race.
“They gave everything for me yesterday [Thursday] and I let them down. Today, I just sat there while eight guys just rode until their legs fell off,” Cavendish said.
“I didn’t really do anything today ... I just crossed the finish line first. It’s another win on the Tour De France, it’s so special for me,” he said.
While Cavendish buried himself in a bid to make the successful break, Froome was left in no-man’s land. At first, Sky fought to close the widening gap, but they were fighting a losing battle.
One by one Sky dropped off the pace, leaving Froome isolated and requiring the help of other teams to aid in the chase.
Contador’s teammate Nicolas Roche said their move was unplanned.
“I asked Michael [Rogers], he asked Alberto and then he asked [Daniele] Bennati,” said Roche, the son of Irish cycling legend Stephen.
“It was a case of us nodding our heads at each other before saying, ‘Go Benna’ [Bennati]. When Bennati went, there was no holding us back,” he said.
At the finish, where Froome crossed over 1:09 in arrears, Contador moved up to third overall. Having been 3:54 down overnight, the Spaniard is only 2:45 behind with Dutchman Bauke Mollema in second at 2:28.
“It just shows that, on the Tour, things can happen every day,” said Contador, who won the race in 2007 and 2009, but was stripped of his 2010 title following a positive test for clenbuterol.
Froome, who saw his Sky team collapse last Sunday, a day after he took the stage eight win and yellow jersey at Ax-Trois-Domaines, admitted he will have to pay special attention for the rest of the race.
“I’ve still got a comfortable lead, but today was just another reminder that this race is wide open,” the Briton said. “Saxo saw their opportunity, and hats off to them and they’ve been rewarded with a minute in time.”
Earlier, Mollema’s Belkin team, and other teams with little at stake in the yellow jersey battle, were instrumental in virtually ending the podium hopes of Spaniard Alejandro Valverde.
The Movistar leader was in second place overall at 3:25, but after a collision with a fellow rider he suffered a broken wheel, got delayed and, when Belkin increased the pace at the front, he was dropped.
Such a move — attacking yellow jersey contenders who suffer setbacks — is contrary to race etiquette, but Valverde, who has never finished on the race podium, remained stoic.