ALEXANDER KRISTOFF of Norway, in a solo show of opportunistic racing, won the 12th stage of the Tour de France in a sprint as Vincenzo Nibali kept the yellow jersey for a 10th day yesterday.
After hitching a ride behind the back wheel of Italian sprinter Matteo Trentin, Kristoff powered out of the pack and beat Peter Sagan of Slovakia, who was second, by nearly a bike length, while Arnaud Demare of France was third. The pack overtook a pair of breakaway riders with less than seven kilometres to go.
Kristoff pointed his fingers skyward and shouted as he crossed the line after timing his burst perfectly.
"I won, finally, and I am really happy," Kristoff said of his first Tour stage win, adding he had been second in two previous sprints. "It was time to win. In Norway, there was a lot of pressure on me: I am the only Norwegian this year!"
Ireland's Nicholas Roche finished 2: 24' back and now lies in 51st position overall, 57:34' behind Nibali.
Kristoff paced himself without two big rivals: Giant-Shimano rider Marcel Kittel, who has won three stages, was dropped earlier in the ride along four small- and medium-sized climbs, while German countryman Andre Greipel, who won Stage 6, crashed within the last few kilometres.
"I went at just the right time," said Kristoff, adding he had no idea the two Germans were out of contention. "I was just thinking about myself."
The mostly flat 185.5-kilometre course from Bourg-en-Bresse to Saint-Etienne in southeastern France was well suited for a possible sprint finish.
The top standings didn't change. Nibali leads Richie Porte of Australia by two minutes, 23 seconds, and Alejandro Valverde of Spain was third, 2:47 back. Nibali is looking to become the first Italian to win the Tour since the late Marco Pantani in 1998.
American rider Andrew Talansky pulled out before the stage due to severe back pain from previous crashes.
The Garmin-Sharp leader who won the Criterium du Dauphine last month rode for several hours with excruciating back pain on Wednesday, when he finished last on the 11th stage. The pack now faces two days in the Alps - which are getting relatively short shrift this year - even if both stages feature uphill finishes that are likely to shake up the top standings.
Today's relatively long Stage 13 will also put riders' legs under the most strain so far.
The 197.5-kilometre trek begins in Saint-Etienne and will crescendo: It first covers a mid-sized climb, then the Category 1 Palaquit pass, and finally an 18-kilometre ascent to the Alpine village of Chamrousse - one of cycling's hardest climbs. Nibali, however, said his Astana team will try to manage the race, before what he sees as a greater challenge a day later.
"It's surely the second stage in the Alps that scares me the most," he said, "because on the first one everyone has energy, and it's always the second one that requires more energy - and where you pay for your efforts."