Chris Froome dodged crashes in the pack to retain his overall lead in the Tour de France before the race heads back to the mountains on Thursday.
Marcel Kittel won for the second time in as many days in Pau, with the victory on stage 11 the German’s fifth of this year’s Tour as he underlined his complete domination of the sprints.
But this was not a repeat of Tuesday’s relaxed ride around the Dordogne for the general classification contenders as the threat of crosswinds made for a nervy day, perhaps contributing to a number of crashes.
The most significant came in the feed zone as the Astana team of Fabio Aru – who is 18 seconds back on Froome in second place – suffered a double blow.
Jakob Fuglsang – fifth overall – hit the deck along with team-mate Dario Cataldo.
The crash ended Cataldo’s race, costing Aru a key domestique, and though Fuglsang completed the stage, his team confirmed he went to hospital for checks afterwards.
AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet, who sits third, 51 seconds off Froome, also hit the deck twice but recovered, while two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador went down with around 20 kilometres remaining before getting back in.
Three-time winner and defending champion Froome stayed clear of trouble, but admitted the incidents made for a more stressful day.
“It was quite a nervous day in case the crosswinds really kicked off,” the Team Sky rider said. “I think for that reason we saw one or two more crashes.”
Kittel and the sprinters broke the heart of solo escapee Maciej Bodnar, who had been part of the day’s breakaway from the very start of the 203.5km stage from Eymet and went alone with 28km left, only to be caught 300 metres from the line.
His Bora-Hansgrohe team could have used the win after losing world champion Peter Sagan to disqualification and general classification hopeful Rafal Majka in a crash, but Bodnar had his own reasons to chase glory as well.
“I’m disappointed because there were maybe 250 metres to go,” Bodnar said. “This was maybe my best day, I wanted to do it for my team, for Rafa, for Peter, but also for my dad who died two months ago.”
This stage was the last chance for the sprinters until after Monday’s rest day at least, but Kittel can hardly complain after winning almost half of those completed so far.
“It’s something outstanding we are achieving here,” the Quick-Step Floors rider said. “It is a lifetime experience.”
Kittel won from Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen of LottoNL-Jumbo and Team Dimension Data’s Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen, while Dan McLay (Fortuneo-Oscaro) came home fifth and Ben Ben Swift of UAE Team Emirates was ninth.
It was noticeable to see John Degenkolb’s Trek-Segafredo team use social media to describe Kittel as “unbeatable” moments after the race finished, but even if his rivals believe it, Kittel dismissed the idea.
“Everyone can be beaten,” he said. “That’s something that I always keep in my mind. I always keep the pressure on myself. If you get arrogant and think you are unbeatable then you will lose.”
Attention now turns to Thursday’s 214.5km stage from Pau to Peyragudes.
The stage will take the peloton back to the slopes where, riding as a domestique in 2012, Froome was made to wait for Sir Bradley Wiggins – a moment where many believe the younger man might have been able to push on and win the race for himself.
“I have mixed feelings about that day,” Froome said. “There was frustration at not being able to go for the stage win, but at the same time I had great feelings, great legs. I would be very, very happy if I felt the same way tomorrow.”
There will be a twist this time around, with the stage finishing on the steep gradients of the Peyresourde-Balestas airfield which was used in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.
“The airstrip is over 20 per cent in gradient, it’s quite savage,” Froome said. “If someone blows just in those 200 metres there could be quite significant time gaps.”
The race finish will be some 540km away from Mont Ventoux, where an all together different event will take place as friends, family and well-wishers – including Wiggins – will gather to remember Tom Simpson on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Simpson, Britain’s first world champion and the first Brit to wear yellow, died when he collapsed on the mountain during the 1967 Tour.
“Certainly Tom Simson left a legacy on which I’d like to believe a lot of us British riders taking part in the Tour de France continue to build on,” said Froome, who won on Ventoux in the 2013 Tour before last year’s drama when he ran up it on foot after his bike was broken in chaotic scenes.
“Even though this year’s Tour doesn’t go up Mont Ventoux it’s obviously a place where I’ve got a lot of special memories of my own, and I imagine there will be thousands of people going up to honour his memory.”
Final leading positions after Stage 11, (Eymet – Pau – 203.5km)
1 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Quick-Step Floors 4hrs 34mins 27secs
2 Dylan Groenewegen (Ned) Team LottoNl-Jumbo at same time
3 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Dimension Data
4 Michael Matthews (Aus) Team Sunweb
5 Daniel Mclay (Gbr) Team Fortuneo – Oscaro
6 Davide Cimolai (Ita) FDJ, 7 Andre Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal
8 Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits
9 Ben Swift (Gbr) UAE Team Emirates
10 Danilo Wyss (Swi) BMC Racing Team
11 Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Bel) Wanty – Groupe Gobert
12 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha-Alpecin
13 Florian Vachon (Fra) Team Fortuneo – Oscaro
14 Dion Smith (NZl) Wanty – Groupe Gobert
15 Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing Team
16 Rudiger Selig (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe
17 Andrea Pasqualon (Ita) Wanty – Groupe Gobert
18 Thomas Boudat (Fra) Direct Energie
19 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Direct Energie
20 Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Bel) Wanty – Groupe Gobert all at same time
Leading general classification after Stage 11
1 Christopher Froome (Gbr) Team Sky 47hrs 01mins 55secs
2 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team at 18secs
3 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at 51secs
4 Rigoberto Uran (Col) Cannondale-Drapac at 55secs
5 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team at 01min 37secs
6 Daniel Martin (Irl) Quick-Step Floors at 01min 44secs
7 Simon Yates (Gbr) Orica-Scott at 02mins 02secs
8 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team at 02mins 13secs
9 Mikel Landa (Spa) Team Sky at 03mins 06secs
10 George Bennett (NZl) Team LottoNl-Jumbo at 03mins 53secs
11 Louis Meintjes (RSA) UAE Team Emirates at 05mins 00secs
12 Alberto Contador (Spa) Trek-Segafredo at 05mins 15secs
13 Pierre Latour (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at 05mins 30secs
14 Mikel Nieve (Spa) Team Sky at 06mins 18secs
15 Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky at 06mins 55secs
16 Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing Team at 06mins 58secs
17 Alexis Vuillermoz (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at 07mins 56secs
18 Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe at 08mins 46secs
19 Carlos Betancur (Col) Movistar Team at 10mins 34secs
20 Brice Feillu (Fra) Team Fortuneo – Oscaro at 11mins 43secs