The last becomes the first at the Tour de France. Arnaud Démare’s travails on each and every mountain pass of this race were such that his ascent of the Col du Portet on Wednesday stoked the public [and since retracted] suspicions of his fellow sprinter André Greipel (Lotto Soudal). The Frenchman was on altogether friendlier terrain on the run in to Pau on stage 18, as he scored victory in the bunch finish.
At the start in Trie-sur-Baïse, Démare had firmly rejected Greipel’s insinuation that he must have taken a tow to finish inside the time limit on Wednesday’s demanding 65km Pyrenean leg after being dropped in the opening kilometres, and he added that the German’s retraction and apology had come too late. “The damage is done,” he said.
Greipel was among the litany of sprinters to leave the race during its wearying traversal of the Alps, while Démare was among the few recognised fast men remaining ahead of stage 18. The Groupama-FDJ rider fended off Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) to claim victory on the Rue du Maquis Le Béarn, but his thoughts at the finish were for an absent foe.
"I have to thank him because I thought of him a lot today," Démare said of Greipel. "That's not my philosophy of cycling. What I can say is that I’ve worked a lot and that I've won today.
"Obviously, that comment hurt me enormously. I'm sorry when my performances are called into question. It's true that I'm not the best in the mountains and I often finish near the time cut, but I worked hard to improve my climbing. This is the best response I could give."
A year ago, Démare's Tour came to an abrupt halt when he finished outside the time limit on stage 9 to Chambery, and he has skirted with a similar fate on occasions in 2018. There was little surprise when race radio crackled into life to announce Démare had been the first rider dropped on the Col de Peyresourde on stage 17, and as he struggled towards the foot of the Col du Portet, it seemed as though his race was run. Instead, the Beauvais native reached the summit with six minutes to spare in penultimate place on the stage.
"I was supported by the public all the way, people shouting 'Allez Arnaud, think of the Champs-Élysées," Démare said. "I was thinking of everything and nothing as I rode. There are moments that aren't easy, but you keep thinking of the work that you've put in, and you tell yourself that you could win tomorrow, even if that's not something concrete. I also didn’t want to disappoint all the people who have supported me."
Greipel’s since deleted tweet carried the hash tag "#notforthefirsttime" and Démare is all too aware that he carries a certain reputation since the polemic that flared up after his 2016 Milan-San Remo victory, when it was alleged that he had taken a tow on the Cipressa to chase back on after being caught up in a crash. Both Démare and his FDJ team refuted that accusation.
"You can never avoid critics, there's always jealousy. We fight to make time cuts. There were a lot of commissaires everywhere and if there was the smallest thing untoward, I would have been sanctioned," Démare said. "During the stage to Luchon, when I was dropped, the Bora car followed me for 40km on the flat. I was fighting by myself. I knew I was losing some time to the peloton, but I fought on, and I was happy to impress them. But I have nothing to say to the critics, they can say what they want."
Démare's victory in Pau is his second on the Tour after he opened his account in Vittel a year ago on the day that Peter Sagan was expelled for his part in the crash that ended Mark Cavendish's Tour. French sprint victories on the Tour have been a rarity in recent decades, and before Démare's win on Thursday was only the fifth by a French sprinter in the 21st century, following Jean-Patrick Nazon's triumphs in 2003 and 2004, Jimmy Casper’s in 2006 and his own of a year ago.
Laporte raised an arm in protest at Démare's movement in the final 100 metres here, but there was no formal complaint from the Cofidis rider, and the result was quickly confirmed by the commissaires.
"At this point in the Tour, there aren't a lot of sprinters are still here, but I still am and I'm able to raise my hands in the air," said Démare, who will hope to strike again on the Champs-Élysées – provided, of course, that he survives Friday’s ascent of the Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque.
"Tomorrow I'll be happy after winning today, but my legs will still hurt."