André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) drew level on victories with Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) at the 2012 Tour de France after he pipped the Slovak in a thrilling sprint at the end of stage 13 in Le Cap d’Agde.
The pair have been the dominant forces in the bunch finishes at the Tour to date, with Greipel having the better of the exchanges on the flat, while Sagan has been imperious on the stages designed for puncheurs. Both have three stage wins in this Tour to date.
Given the presence of the sharp Mont Saint-Clair 25 kilometres from the finish, the consensus beforehand was that Saturday’s stage would be better-suited to the green jersey Sagan. Indeed, Greipel was duly among the sprinters distanced as the gradient reared up on the stiff 1.6km climb, but thanks to the efforts of his Lotto Belisol teammates, the German was able to rejoin the 40-man front group on the windswept run-in to the line.
"This victory is special because we came over Mont Saint-Clair, which is very difficult and caused a big selection," Greipel said afterwards. "We spoke about it this morning and I knew that I had to be at the front of the peloton as the climb began. I was dropped but I managed to stay in contact, but it was the work of my team that really allowed me to win."
While Lars Bak was the man who did most to bring Greipel back into contact with the head of the peloton, he paid tribute to the collective efforts of his team. "Even Van Den Broeck, who’s here for the GC, worked for me," he said.
The reduced lead group fragmented and reformed several times on the high-octane dash along the Bassin de Thau to the finish in Le Cap d’Agde, but Lotto Belisol’s Adam Hansen and Jurgen Roedlandts were prominent in pegging back the late escapees Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge).
The yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) came to the front inside the technical final two kilometres as Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) drifted off the front, as the Briton looked to set up his teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen for the sprint.
"I decided to take Boasson Hagen’s wheel in the sprint because I could see that it was a finish for him, and Wiggins and Froome were working for him," Greipel said.
While Greipel powered past Boasson Hagen inside the final 100 metres, he was put to the pin of his collar by a determined Peter Sagan. After a shoulder injury had impeded Greipel in their duel in Metz last week, he was pleased to get the verdict over the youngster by the narrowest of margins.
"I came here to win a stage and now I’ve won three," said Greipel, who believes he has at least two more chances to add to his tally before the end of the Tour. "The next stage for the sprinters is on Monday. It’s my birthday, so I would like to be able to give myself a present."
Sagan wary in green jersey battle
Although disappointed to miss out on the stage victory, Sagan was magnanimous in his praise of Greipel’s win. "I lost out by a very small margin, but I have to say that Greipel’s Lotto team were very good," he said. "They were the ones who pulled when Vinokourov and Albasini went away so I have to say that he deserved the win today."
Sagan can console himself with the knowledge that he is continuing to tighten his grip on the green jersey. With Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) distanced in the finale, Sagan’s closest challenger is now Greipel, but the German is 64 points behind.
"We’re always closer to sealing it and we’re closer to Paris, but we still have to be careful because there are some tough stages to come," he said.