Mark Cavendish took his 25th Tour de France stage victory on stage 13 to Saint Amand Montrond, getting into a small, select lead group and outgunning Peter Sagan to the line. The day saw an unexpected shakeup in the general classification too, with Alejandro Valverde losing time, while Bauke Mollema and Alberto Contador closed the gap on yellow jersey Chris Froome.
The 173 kilometre stage from Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond was largely flat with just one 4th category climb at its midpoint. Stage 13 was undoubtedly one for the sprinters but equally a stage where, in the general classification competition, the race could be easily lost.
Maillot jaune Chris Froome began the stage with his three minute 25 second lead intact but the bad news for Sky Procycling was the retirement of Edvald Boasson Hagen due to a broken right shoulder sustained in the previous stage’s last minute pileup.
With just seven riders remaining following the Norwegian powerhouse’s departure, there was speculation that Sky Procycling may not have the firepower to maintain the overall lead through the Alps to Paris.
Speaking to the Team Sky website, Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford said, "It’s a real shame for Edvald and a setback for the team that he’s been forced to abandon the race.
"It’s never nice to lose a rider of Edvald’s ability, but ultimately we’re still confident that with the riders we’ve got left we can pull together and see the race through.
"The plan doesn't change and we will do everything we can to support Chris."
The need for a strong team to support general classification contention was vividly demonstrated midway through the stage when Alejandro Valverde, Froome’s nearest rival, suffered a rear wheel puncture and lost touch with the group containing Chris Froome.
This came after the race split in three distinct groups, partly due to the winds and partly due to the pace-making of Omega Pharma Quick-Step, their leader Mark Cavendish smarting after a narrow defeat to Marcel Kittel on stage 12.
Following stage 12 Cavendish said "You can sit there and analyze it, but when there is someone simply faster than you there is nothing you can do.
"I don't think me, or the team, could have done anything differently. He was just simply better today.”
A day later and it was clear that the British champion and his team would take the fight to Kittel’s Argos Shimano team by any means necessary, the German sprinter finding himself on the wrong side of the split.
With 70 km to go and the intermediate sprint approaching, the gap between the Froome/Cavendish group and that of Kittel/Valverde had grown to over a minute; stage 13’s innocuous looking schlep to Saint-Amand-Montrond began to take on a race defining character.
Andre Greipel took the top points at Saint-Aoustrille, ahead of Cavendish and Sagan, the German closing the gap on Cavendish who had leapfrogged him in the points competition after stage 12. However the sprint point also served as a marker to the damage inflicted by the lead group, as the Valverde group rolled through over one minute 40 seconds later.
For the next 30 kilometres the gap between the lead group and the Kittel group stretched and contracted. The hard charging of Omega Pharma Quick-Step continued to tear the race to pieces – the lead group fragmenting in the hot, dry crosswinds of the Tourraine and Berry regions.
With 35 kilometres to go Valverde’s group was two minutes in arrears as Cavendish’s team, along with third place on GC Bauke Mollema’s Belkin team pressed-on hard to toward the finish.
Five kilometres later the general classification battle took another turn as Alberto Contador (fourth on general classification) and his Saxo Tinkoff team clipped off the front dragging with them Bauke Mollema, Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and others. Suddenly Froome was under pressure with only four Sky Procycling teammates in attendance.
With just 15 kilometres to go Contador’s group had over 40 seconds over the Froome group which in turn was now over five minutes ahead of the Valverde group. A general classification shakeup was afoot and with Froome’s lieutenant Peter Kennaugh dropped from the chase, the yellow jersey only had three Sky Procycling teammates in support, including Geraint Thomas.
As the race approached Saint Amand Montrand, Froome had lost a minute to Contador, with another Team Sky lieutenant Siutsou shed from the chasing group, leaving just Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard in support. Eight minutes down the road was Alejandro Valverde, effectively out of the general classification race. However, Froome’s attention had turned to the riders up front, gaining valuable seconds with every passing kilometre.
In the front group, thoughts turned from the general classification battle to the stage victory and it was clear that it was a two horse race between Cavendish and Sagan. Into the final few hundred metres and Cavendish came off the wheel of teammate Sylvain Chavanel and unlike the previous day, there was nobody coming past the British champion, who claimed a 25th Tour de France stage victory.
A minute and nine seconds later, the Froome group rolled over the line, the British rider’s lead cut to two minutes and 28 seconds ahead of Bauke Mollema (Belkin). Ten minutes later came the Valverde group, the Spaniard’s general classification bid at an end.
Following his stage win Cavendish spoke to ITV4.
“It was incredible. We talked about it a little bit. We knew the wind was strong and I said to Gert (Steegmans) that it’s strong enough to break it now. Tony (Martin) is like wait a bit longer and the next thing Gert goes and it just kicked off then.
“We just kept going and then Saxo went later... it’s incredible, I’m so happy, so proud of the guys – they rode out of their skins today.”
On the decisive Saxo Tinkoff move, Cavendish said, “I nearly missed it. Kwiatowski got me halfway across. I just sprinted and managed to just get in.
“When echelons start you know that feeling when you fall through ice and you’ve got five seconds or it’s over... ...it’s exactly what it’s like in an echelon.
“We’re a Belgian team, we’re used to riding in crosswinds, we’re experienced at it – along with Belkin it was a good combination to get that first move going.
“At the finish Sagan had just one guy and I knew if I stayed behind him I’d get it.”
Race leader Chris Froome's mood was in stark contrast to Cavendish's. Froome said this to ITV4.
“[Today’s stage was] another reminder to us that we’ve just got to be on our toes all the time on stages like this that look simple on paper. It’s not always the case.
“I was feeling quite comfortable but when that split went [Contador move] 12 guys went and anything further back from there and you didn’t make it.
“It wasn’t easy for anyone out there. We’ve got a couple of quite lumpy stages before Mont Ventoux on Sunday so it’s going to be an exciting weekend of racing.”
1 CAVENDISH Mark Omega Pharma - Quick-Step 03:40:08
2 SAGAN Peter Cannondale Pro Cycling Team ,,
3 MOLLEMA Bauke Belkin Pro Cycling Team ,,
4 FUGLSANG Jakob Astana Pro Team ,,
5 TERPSTRA Niki Omega Pharma - Quick-Step ,,
6 KREUZIGER Roman Team Saxo-Tinkoff ,,
7 CONTADOR VELASCO Alberto Team Saxo-Tinkoff ,,
8 TEN DAM Laurens Belkin Pro Cycling Team ,,
9 CHAVANEL Sylvain Omega Pharma - Quick-Step 00:06
10 ROGERS Michael Team Saxo-Tinkoff 00:09
1 FROOME Christopher Sky Procycling 51:00:30
2 MOLLEMA Bauke Belkin Pro Cycling Team 02:28
3 CONTADOR VELASCO Alberto Team Saxo-Tinkoff 02:45
4 KREUZIGER Roman Team Saxo-Tinkoff 02:48
5 TEN DAM Laurens Belkin Pro Cycling Team 03:01
6 FUGLSANG Jakob Astana Pro Team 04:39
7 KWIATKOWSKI Michal Omega Pharma - Quick-Step 04:44
8 QUINTANA ROJAS Nairo Alexander Movistar Team 05:18
9 PERAUD Jean-Christophe AG2R La Mondiale 05:39
10 RODRIGUEZ OLIVER Joaquim Katusha Team 05:48
1 SAGAN Peter Cannondale Pro Cycling Team 357
2 CAVENDISH Mark Omega Pharma - Quick-Step 273
3 GREIPEL Andre Lotto Belisol Team 217
4 KITTEL Marcel Team Argos - Shimano 177
5 KRISTOFF Alexander Katusha Team 157
6 FLECHA Juan Antonio Vacansoleil - DCM 110
7 ROJAS GIL Jose Joaquin Movistar Team 102
8 KWIATKOWSKI Michal Omega Pharma - Quick-Step 101
9 VAN POPPEL Danny Vacansoleil - DCM 87
10 IMPEY Daryl Orica GreenEDGE 76