Cavendish takes stage 13 as Contador closes on Froome
Mark Cavendish answered his critics with victory on stage 13 of the Tour de France to Saint-Amand-Montrond but there was drama for Chris Froome as Alberto Contador used a late attack to take more than a minute out of him in the general classification scrap.
Cavendish awoke to headlines in French sports daily L'Equipe declaring his reign as the pre-eminent sprinter of the day over following Marcel Kittel's third stage win yesterday, but responded with his second win of this 100th Tour.
As crosswinds caused several splits in the peloton on the flat roads from Tours, Contador's Team Saxo-Tinkoff squad launched an attack off the front along with Cavendish and Sagan a little over 30km from the finish, and Team Sky could not find a response.
If there was good news for Froome, it was that Alejandro Valverde, who began the day second in the general classification, suffered an ill-timed puncture and ended up losing more than eight minutes, effectively ending his chances.
The victory for Cavendish is the 25th Tour win of his career, putting him joint third all-time alongside Andre Leducq, with only Bernard Hinault (28) and Eddy Merckx (34) ahead of him.
In contrast to yesterday, when Cavendish wasted a perfect lead-out from Omega Pharma-Quick Step by allowing Kittel to charge past to the line in Tours, the Manxman won with relative ease as Sagan crossed in second, offering little by the way of serious competition.
Of more significance was the sight of Bauke Mollema in third, with the Dutch Belkin rider replacing Valverde in second overall, two minutes and 28 seconds behind Froome.
Contador cut his deficit to two minutes 45 seconds and is now in third place.
Cavendish needed victory today for a host of reasons.
Kittel's win yesterday prompted the headline "Cavendish's reign is over" in L'Equipe, and before the start of today's stage the 28-year-old himself signalled he may be ready to accept that fate.
"Maybe I am just getting old," he said. "It's the cycle of life."
Kittel was not there to contest the finish having been dropped early in the stage as the crosswinds blew, finishing along with Valverde way down the road.
Cavendish, who won stage five to Marseille but suffered frustration many times over elsewhere, was also desperate to take what was the final clear opportunity for the sprinters until Paris as the race heads towards the Alps this weekend.
In his career, he has never won fewer than three stages of a Tour, and that number came last year when he could blame Team Sky's focus on the general classification for not living up to his usual even loftier standards.
But while he could celebrate tonight, Froome was left licking his wounds after Contador sent a reminder of the threat he poses.
Everything had been looking good for the man in the yellow jersey after an ill-timed puncture for Valverde, just as the pack was splitting in the winds, saw him drift back into the second peloton.
But Saxo-Tinkoff's well-time attack delivered dividends for two-time winner Contador and sent a reminder that the fight for yellow is far from over with the Alps to come.
It was a good day for Nicolas Roche who finished 11th on today's stage, 11 seconds behind Cavendish. He moves up to 35th on the General Classification.
Ireland's Dan Martin is 11th in the general classification 5:52 behind Froome after finishing in 19th place today.