Van Avermaet wins Stage 13, Froome still leads Tour
RODEZ, France (AP) Peter Sagan might be the unluckiest rider at the Tour de France. ''So close yet so far'' could be his nickname.
With a few more pumps on his pedals, a few more ounces of speed and power, the spunky Slovakian could have won four stages by now.
Instead, he has four second places.
He blamed only himself for the latest addition Friday to his unwanted collection. In a man-to-man duel on an uphill final sprint against Greg van Avermaet, Sagan mistimed his finish, easing up just a fraction too early against the Belgian rider who pushed to the very end.
''My stupid mistake,'' said the Tinkoff-Saxo rider.
Chris Froome was faultless. Again. Another stage down, another step closer to sipping champagne on the Champs-Elysees for the race leader.
''Just happy to tick that day off. One day closer to Paris now,'' he said.
For most of the flat-to-hilly Stage 13 from Muret deep in southern France, six low-placed riders rode in a breakaway at the front of the race. None were a threat for the podium in Paris. The closest to Froome, Cyril Gautier, was more than an hour behind him in the overall standings. So Froome and the main pack happily let the escape get away, hoping instead for a breather on the 198-kilometer (123-mile) trek after three grueling days of climbing in the Pyrenees and under unrelenting sun that melted tarmac.
Riding past plantations of yellow sunflowers and golden fields of harvested wheat, the riders worked on staying hydrated as temperatures soared into the mid-30s Celsius (mid-90s Fahrenheit). A loss of concentration proved very painful for Jean-Christophe Peraud. Last year's runner-up suffered a nasty spill at speed on the flat, tearing strips of skin off his left leg and arms as he hit the deck hard and rolled several times. The French leader of the AG2R La Mondiale team gingerly picked himself up and remounted, gritting his teeth. A Tour doctor then patched him up on the move, wrapping his wounds in bandages as Peraud gripped the speeding medical car.
''When it's hot like that, you need a new bottle of water every 10-15 minutes,'' said Froome. ''It was tough.''
And it got tougher.
As the finish in Rodez drew close, the peloton woke from its slumber. Like mice trying to escape a hunting cat, the escapees rode furiously, eyeing the stage win in the town of 26,000 people. Their speciality dishes include aligot, a mix of melted cheese and mashed potato, and tripe.
The cat had other plans.
Riders took turns at the front of the peloton to pile on speed. The gap melted like ice cream. With 7 kilometers (4 miles) to ride, it had shrunk from minutes to 40 seconds. It was clear this would be agonizingly close.
The pack caught its prey inside the last kilometer (half-mile), swallowing up the last three escapees. That was when van Avermaet and Sagan pounced, surging ahead, two powerful riders competing for one prize.
The 30-year-old Belgian made the top 10 on five previous stages. Not bad, but no cigar. As well as second places on Stages 2, 5 and 6, 25-year-old Sagan also placed third twice. Both were ravenous to win.
Van Avermaet, it turned out, just a fraction more so.
Sensing a rider - he didn't know it was Sagan - on his wheel, he emptied his tank. Sagan, sprinting behind, off his saddle, sat back down just a tad too early.
''Incredible,'' said van Avermaet, who rides for the BMC team.
''I was dead, really dead,'' he said. ''I thought I'd caught second. I pushed for the line and was so happy he didn't overtake me.''
Sagan glowered at a reporter who asked how it felt to be second again. He is the most consistent sprinter of this Tour, wearing the green jersey awarded for that quality. But he last won a stage in 2013. He won three the year before that.
''I'm very angry and disappointed,'' Sagan said. ''I sat down and all the pain comes. Bad.''
The cat-mouse chase killed Froome's hopes for an uneventful day. The British leader of the Sky team and his closest podium challengers threw themselves into the final sprint because they didn't want to lose time, even just a few seconds, to each other. Mission accomplished. Froome's lead remains unchanged, with Tejay van Garderen of BMC still 2 minutes, 52 seconds back and Nairo Quintana third, still 3:09 back.
''What started off as quite an easy steady stage turned crazy by the end,'' Froome said. ''The guys started panicking that they weren't going to catch the breakaway.''
He is bracing for more hostilities on the short but very sharp uphill finish of Saturday's Stage 14 at Mende.
''I'm in a great position,'' he said. ''But far from over.''