OVERALL leader Chris Froome produced another surprise attack to gain time on his Tour de France rivals, as Peter Sagan won Wednesday’s blustery 11th stage.
The two star riders broke away from the peloton with a teammate each, inside the final 13km of a 162.5km stage from Carcassonne to Montpellier, which was ridden at breakneck speed.
With Tinkoff’s Maciej Bodnar and Geraint Thomas of Sky helping their teammates, the front four quickly established a 20-second lead over a peloton that was slow to react. The move came with the sprinters’ teams manoeuvring to set up their leads for a bunch dash to the line.
But Sagan, the green jersey points leader, caught them out with a determined attack, alongside his teammate Bodnar.
Froome and his lieutenant Thomas were the only riders to react and quickly bridged over to the front two.
They had just enough of a gap for Froome to gain six seconds on the line, as well as another six bonus seconds. World champion Sagan easily won the sprint, with Froome second and Bodnar third.
It means Froome now leads fellow Briton Adam Yates by 28sec, with Dan Martin of Ireland third at 31sec. Froome’s main rival, Nairo Quintana, is fourth at 35sec. Following his break on a downhill finish to the seventh stage, where he gained 13sec, along with another 10sec bonus, it was another masterstroke from Froome.
A two-man breakaway set off onto the wide open plains on a stage where wind promised to be a complicating factor.
From early on that proved the case, as several crashes occurred in the bunch, one notably involving French climber Thibaut Pinot.
Australian Leigh Howard and French road race champion Arthur Vichot gallantly laboured on with what was always sure to be a futile escape. Yet the peloton felt comfortable enough to let them stretch their lead out to four and a half minutes.
But when Tinkoff, Etixx, and Sky put the hammer down, the leaders’ gap was halved within just a few kilometres.
The acceleration at the front, coupled with strong winds, saw the peloton split in two, with the second group quickly drifting out to a 40-second deficit before clawing their way back.
Yet no sooner had they joined up, when another burst at the front caused splits all over the peloton as the leaders’ advantage tumbled quickly down to just 20 seconds with 70km left.
The end came for Howard and Vichot with just more than 60km left, but the pace didn’t let up until the peloton passed the intermediate sprint, which was won by Marcel Kittel from Sagan and Mark Cavendish.
The slowing in pace allowed the distanced riders to latch back on to form one compact peloton with 35km left.
But the pace went up again 15km from the end with Sagan’s attack that again split the peloton all over the road. Thursday’s 12th stage will be shortened because of expected violent gusts of wind at the top of Mont Ventoux, organisers said on Wednesday. The stage from Montpellier will therefore end at Chalet Reynard, about 15.5km into the 21.5km ascent.