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.
“It was another spur-of-the-moment thing,” said Froome, who performed a similar trick in the seventh stage. “The team did a massive job in keeping me at the front.
“When Peter went there with 10km to go, I thought, ‘Why not go after him?’ Geraint Thomas came with me and we all worked together.”
The two star riders — Froome in the yellow jersey and Sagan in green — broke away from the peloton with a team-mate each inside the final 13km of a 162.5km stage from Carcassonne to Montpellier ridden at breakneck speed.
With Tinkoff’s Maciej Bodnar and Thomas of Sky helping their team-mates, 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 leaders for a bunch dash to the line.
But Sagan, the points leader, caught them out with a determined attack alongside Bodnar.
Froome, 31, and his Sky 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.
“I hope you’re enjoying it, I’m having fun all the time,” Sagan told French television.
“Today was a great day, I’m very happy. In the last 200 metres I wanted to let Bodnar win but Chris launched the sprint and I had to go.
“We (Tinkoff) wanted to win today, we showed we were the strongest today. Also thanks to Froome because he worked with us, and Geraint Thomas too.”
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 10-second bonus, it was another masterstroke from Froome.
And it was all the more critical given the organisers’ decision to shorten Thursday’s 12th stage finishing on Mont Ventoux by 6km due to dangerously high winds at the summit, thus giving Froome’s rivals less of a chance to gain time on him.
– Hammer down –
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 did they join up, 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 over 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, helping the 26-year-old Slovak extend his lead in the green jersey competition.
Overall standings after the 11th stage of the Tour de France, a 162.5km ride from Carcassonne to Montpellier on Wednesday:
1. Chris Froome (GBR/Sky) 52hrs 34min 37sec
2. Adam Yates (GBR/ORI) at 0:28.
3. Daniel Martin (IRL/ETI) 0:31.
4. Nairo Quintana (COL/MOV) 0:35.
5. Bauke Mollema (NED/TRE) 0:56.
6. Romain Bardet (FRA/ALM) 0:56.
7. Sergio Henao (COL/SKY) 0:56.
8. Alejandro Valverde (ESP/MOV) 1:13.
9. Tejay Van Garderen (USA/BMC) 1:13.
10. Roman Kreuziger (CZE/TIN) 1:28.
– Agence France-Presse