This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Bauke Mollema (Belkin) pulled back more than a minute on Chris Froome (Team Sky) during stage 13 of the Tour de France after crosswinds and echelons transformed a transfer stage into a battleground on the road to Saint-Amand-Montrond.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) beat Peter Sagan (Cannondale) to win his 25th Tour de France stage after a master class of aggressive racing in the wind but his superb performance was matched by that of Saxo-Tinkoff who cracked Team Sky and Froome in the finale of the stage.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was distanced and lost second place overall after puncturing mid-stage, then Saxo-Tinkoff split the front group again with 30km to go, distancing Froome. Team Sky did not have the riders to close the gap and Froome finished more than a minute behind Contador and Mollema. A flat stage had done as much damage as a mountain finish.
Froome's overall lead fell to 2:28 ahead of Mollema. Contador is now third overall at 2:45.
Cavendish celebrates Tour win number 25
Cavendish slapped his sides as he beat Sagan and crossed the finish line, seemingly proud to indicate the name of his team, who had ridden so well to help him win.
"It's incredible to win like that," he said.
Cav took the final sprint with ease, racking up his 25th Tour stage win
"We talked about it a bit before the stage, we knew the wind was strong but we didn't know it was strong enough to break it. Then Gert (Steegmans) goes and kicked it off. We kept going and then Saxo went later. I'm so happy. The guys rode out of their skin today. It's incredible to be able to win that."
"I nearly missed the final split. Kwiatkowski got me half way across and then I shouted to him to move left. I sprinted and just managed to get in the echelon. When echelons form it’s similar to falling through ice... you've got five seconds to save yourself or it's all over. I sprinted across the gap, then we were gone. We're a Belgian team and we're used to racing in crosswinds. I knew I'd be able to get it if I stayed behind Sagan in the sprint and I did."
How it happened
The stage was expected to be another quiet day for most of the peloton, with the overall contenders saving their legs for Sunday's finish at Mont Ventoux and the sprinters determined to control the racing and then fight for the win.
An early break of six riders formed almost at kilometre zero, with Yohann Gene (Team Europcar), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskaltel), Luis Mate (Cofidis), Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida), Kris Boeckmans (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Cyril Lemoine (Sojasun) opening a four-minute lead.
The peloton rides near Nouans-les-Fontaines
They looked set to be off the front for much of the day but instead the race took a twist just before 100km mark. The hot canicule crosswinds of central France suddenly created waves in the cornfields and sparked echelons in the peloton.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step was the first to hit the front and work hard to force the split. Suddenly the race had come alive and other teams joined in, especially when the sprint teams up front realised that Kittel was not there.
The hard work of the front group meant the break was quickly caught and then the stage took another twist when Valverde punctured with 86km to go.
The Spaniard did not panic but perhaps underestimated the gravity of the situation and the risk he faced. He took a rear wheel from a teammate and got going again. However he lost 30 seconds and suddenly realised that with the front group riding hard and the side winds still blowing, he would have to fight to get back on.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step used crosswinds to force a split
Three teammates helped him chase and another dropped back from the front group but they did not have the speed to get back on. Belkin knew they had a chance to move up Mollema in the overall classification and so began to work even harder. It was a key moment in the stage but would not prove to be the biggest.
Valverde eventually drifted backwards and was caught by the Kittel group. Their teams led the chase, but they lost more and more time. Kittel lost out on the chance of another stage win, Valverde lost any hope of a good overall result. He finished 9:54 behind Cavendish and slipped to 16th overall.
Saxo-Tinkoff's audacious attack
With 31km to go, the tension seemed to ease upfront. Then suddenly the race exploded yet again thanks to the side winds. It was the most audacious attack of the day. Saxo-Tinkoff had been vigilant all day and suddenly hit the front hard causing yet another split. Contador was there and so too was Mollema but Froome was not with them and failed to get on the back of the echelon. He could only watch them surge away, while his teammates quickly tried to start a chase.
Cavendish and Sagan were in the front echelon of 14 riders, with several teammates and they also joined in the work. Greipel had missed it. The race for the stage and for the overall GC was on.
For 10 kilometres, Team Sky and other chasers managed to hold the gap to a handful of seconds but then suddenly the elastic snapped. Richie Porte had already been dropped from the front peloton and there were only three Team Sky riders to help Froome.
The Tour de France passes Montresor Castle
Up front, the Saxo-Tinkoff riders suddenly began to give absolutely everything, riding a team time trial to gain as much time as they could. Even Contador did some turns on the front. Behind Lotto Belisol tried to chase down the echelon, but the gap reached a minute.
In the final kilometre, the 14 riders in the echelon began to think about the stage win. Niki Terpstra tried a solo move for Omega Pharma-Quick Step, forcing Maciej Bodnar to chase him down instead of leading out Sagan.
Cavendish sat on the Slovakian's wheel and then jumped away in sight of the line to take his 25th Tour de France win. Sagan was second, with Mollema third.
Froome finished 1:09 behind and struggled to smile as he pulled on the yellow jersey. He has realised he will have to fight all the way to Paris if he wants to win the 100th edition of the Tour de France.