By John Leicester
SAINT-AMAND-MONTROND, France: Wily Tour de France riders who used the wind and worked together to trap their rivals turned a trek across the flats of central France into a thriller on Friday, as exciting and, for the most unfortunate, as decisive as any spectacular day in the mountains.
Yellow jersey holder Chris Froome lost a chunk of his race lead but not enough to gravely endanger the Briton heading toward what is shaping up to be an intriguing finale in the Alps. The team of Alberto Contador dealt the former two-time champion back into the game, putting him close enough to Froome to make the last week interesting. A rear-wheel failure at the worst time dropped Alejandro Valverde from second place to nowhere. And Mark Cavendish got a 25th stage win to lift the British sprinter to a third-place tie on the all-time list of cycling’s premier race.
All this on a Stage 13 that, on paper, looked beforehand as though it might be a dud.
Much of Friday’s mischief was cooked up by two teams — Belkin and Omega Pharma-QuickStep — that simply happened to share the same hotel the night before. With two-thirds of the stage left to race, a time when the pack often prefers to take things easy and let breakaway riders speed ahead for a while, Omega powered as a group to the front and rode like furies. They soon got additional support from Belkin. Their sudden acceleration and sustained high speed caught dozens of other riders off guard. The pack split into three groups. The breeze blowing across the long, undulating straights made it impossible for stragglers to catch up.
When Valverde’s rear wheel broke with more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) to ride, the Spaniard could only look on helpless as the pack sped on without him. With a new rear wheel, he and his Movistar teammates tried but failed to catch back up. He lost nearly nine minutes to Froome and fell out of podium contention to 16th place.
On this very tactical 173-kilometer (107-mile) stage from Tours in the Loire valley, Contador’s Saxo-Tinkoff team then pulled the same trick as Belkin and Omega. They hit the gas about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the crowded finish in the town of Saint-Amand-Montrond, again splintering the pack. This time, Froome was among those left behind.
Never letting up, they got Contador to the finish 1 minute, 9 seconds ahead of Froome. Still, Froome’s time cushion remains significant and he is an excellent climber. The imposing Mont Ventoux this Sunday and the Alps next week offer him chances to do damage of his own.
Cavendish just managed to stay with Contador’s group when they accelerated away. He then beat Peter Sagan in the finishing sprint. Cavendish’s 25th win moved him level with Frenchman Andre Leducq on the Tour’s all-time list of stage winners. Now, only Bernard Hinault, with 28, and Eddy Merckx, with 34, have more than the Briton.