Sagan wins stage ahead of Froome in breakaway
MONTPELLIER, FRANCE >> World champion Peter Sagan won the windy 11th stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday after getting in a late four-man breakaway that also included overall leader Chris Froome.
With 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) remaining in the 162.5-kilometer (101-mile) leg from the medieval city of Carcassonne to Montpellier near the Mediterranean coast, Froome and his Sky teammate Geraint Thomas joined the Tinkoff duo of Peter Sagan and Maciej Bodnar in the lead.
"Again it was just another one of those spur of the moment kind of things," Froome said. "When Sagan went I thought, 'Well, why not? Let me go after him and see what happens.' The four of us worked well together. It was in all of our best interests to work together.
"Peter wanted the stage and we wanted to gain time on the GC (general classification, or overall) guys," Froome added.
Sagan easily won the sprint finish ahead of Froome, while Bodnar crossed third.
It was Sagan's second victory in this Tour and his sixth career win in cycling's biggest race.
"It was a surprise also for me," Sagan said. "We don't plan that. We are like artists. ... It just happens. With this wind it was dangerous every moment in the stage."
Getting a six-second bonus for his second-place finish, Froome gained 12 seconds on all of his direct rivals who finished in the main peloton six seconds behind.
It was the second time in four days that Froome surprised his opponents with a smart, tactical move. He also rode clear with a daring solo downhill attack and stage victory in Stage 8 in the Pyrenees.
"We really are looking for every opportunity," Froome said. "It's our mentality this year to try our luck every time it's possible, even on the flats."
Aiming for his third Tour title in four years, the bigger gaps also made Froome more comfortable in the yellow jersey ahead of Thursday's mountain finish at Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day.
Froome moved 28 seconds ahead of fellow British rider Adam Yates.
Dan Martin of Ireland is third overall, 31 seconds behind, and two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana of Colombia is fourth, 35 seconds back.
Due to a forecast of more winds, race organizers shortened the Ventoux climb by six kilometers.
"It's the most iconic climb in this race but at the end of the day it just wouldn't be safe for the riders," said Froome, who was the stage winner when the Tour last scaled Ventoux's barren, 1,909-meter (6,263-foot) peak in 2013. "I think it's the right thing to do."
On paper, the mostly flat stage had appeared to set up well for sprinters. But with crosswinds of 40 kph (25 mph) sweeping across the road, it developed into a more tactical finish.
Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford said he wants his riders to race less predictably this year and so far they are carrying out his instructions.
"When they went, Froomey responded straightaway and behind him there was a gap, so I got up to him," Thomas said. "We were at the front all day just waiting for something to go and then Sagan and Bodnar just went and that was it."
An early breakaway by French champion Arthur Vichot and Leigh Howard of Australia established a lead of nearly four minutes — before being caught midway through the stage.
At times, the wind split the peloton into several small groups, known as echelons, that swept across the road in fan-like formations.
Even midway through the stage, Froome rode hard at the front of the peloton, perhaps sensing that some of his rivals were having trouble keeping up.
There were several crashes early in the stage, starting with George Bennett of New Zealand and Thibaut Pinot, who has the king of the mountains jersey. After landing in a ditch on the side of the road, both riders were able to get back on their bikes.
At least a dozen other riders also hit the pavement without serious consequence — with wind the likely cause.
Pinot was among the riders dropped by the peloton when the wind was at its fiercest, although he caught up again a bit later.
The next two days are two of the toughest on the Tour.
Stage 12 Thursday is a 178-kilometer (111-mile) leg from Montpellier to Mont Ventoux in the Provence region. Froome was the stage winner when the Tour last scaled Ventoux's barren, 1,909-meter (6,263-foot) peak in 2013.
The race's first time trial comes Friday with a hilly 37.5-kilometer (23.3 mile) leg from Bourg-Saint-Andeol to La Caverne du Pont-D'Arc.