Chris Froome surrendered the yellow jersey to Fabio Aru as Romain Bardet won stage 12 of the Tour de France in Peyragudes.
Froome faded badly on the brutal final climb of the 214.5km stage from Pau while Aru finished third to take the final bonus seconds on offer.
The Italian national champion now leads the Tour by six seconds from Froome, with Bardet closing to within 25 seconds of yellow in third place overall.
A tough day in the mountains finished with a climb of the airstrip at Peyragudes, only a few hundred metres long but with gradients nearing 20 per cent.
The group of favourites came to the foot of the climb together, but after Aru struck out first, Froome struggled to respond.
Frenchman Bardet timed his attack to perfection, taking victory ahead of Aru and Colombian Rigoberto Uran, both two seconds back but picking up bonus seconds.
Froome finished a lowly seventh, 22 seconds behind Bardet.
Irishman Dan Martin was sixth, 13 seconds behind the winner while Simon Yates came home ninth in the best young riders’ white jersey, but gave up 20 seconds to rival Louis Meintjes of UAE Team Emirates.
Marcel Kittel cantered to a fourth stage win of the Tour de France at the end of Tuesday’s 178km 10th stage from Perigueux to Bergerac with Chris Froome retaining the overall lead.
The 29-year-old German was imperious as he won easily ahead of compatriot John Degenkolb with Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen third.
“It’s true, it’s amazing, I can’t even tell you how proud I am,” said Quick-Step’s Kittel.
“It’s a fourth stage win in 10 days, that’s a great achievement for me and the team.”
But it was the manner of Kittel’s victory that was most impressive.
Once he accelerated from around half a dozen bodies back, he simply breezed past the competition and streaked clear to win by a couple of bike lengths, even having time to raise his arms in celebration before crossing the line.
It means he is well set to make this his best Tour yet as he has already matched his previous top effort — four stage wins in both 2013 and 2014 — less than half the way through this year’s race.
In fact, Kittel has won four of the five flat sprint finishes at the Tour this year, and in the one he didn’t win he was held up by a crash in the final kilometre
A tilt at the record of eight stage wins from a single Tour has now become a viable possibility.
Kittel also broke the record for stage wins by a German, moving one clear of the 12 mark he had shared with Erik Zabel following his stage victory on Friday.
And he increased his lead in the green points jersey competition, emphasising the possibility of Kittel holding it all the way to Paris — although he has a fair way to go to match Zabel’s record of six wins in that category.
Earlier in the day French pair Yoann Ofredo and Elie Gesbert took off from the get-go on Tuesday’s stage and held a lead of five and a half minutes at one stage but their effort was always doomed to failure and they were inevitably caught with seven kilometres left.
For Briton Froome, the reigning champion, and the other overall contenders it was a quiet and calm day in the saddle.
The 10th stage followed Monday’s rest day and Froome admitted Tuesday’s stage “almost” felt like a second successive day off.
“It was a calmer day, there wasn’t much wind and no stress today — it was a less complicated stage.
“It’s never easy but today was calmer.”
That would have been a relief after Sunday’s calamitous stage that saw five riders crash out, including Australian contender Richie Porte.
Froome kept hold of the race leader’s yellow jersey with an 18-second advantage to Italy’s Fabio Aru.
France’s Romain Bardet is third at 51sec.
UAE Team Emirates’ Louis Meintjes retained 11th place in the overall GC whilst second in the Youth Classification.
After a bruising opening week of the Tour de France that saw several pre-race favourites crash out, Louis Meintjes insists riders must possess nerves of steel in order to stay mentally focused on glory.
In one of the most brutal opening weeks in Le Tour’s 104-year history, BMC Racing’s Richie Porte broke his shoulder blade and pelvis after being catapulted off his bike on the descent of the Mont du Chat into the path of Quick Step Floors rider Dan Martin on Stage 9 on Sunday.
Movistar’s veteran Spaniard Alejandro Valverde broke his kneecap after careering into barricades on a very wet opening stage in Dusseldorf on July 1, while early Tour leader Geraint Thomas, of Team Sky, also saw his race ended on Stage 9 by a broken collarbone on the descent of Col de la Biche before Porte followed suit.
UAE Team Emirates rider Meintjes, at 5’ 8” tall and weighing in at a slight 59kg, is one of the smallest men on the professional cycling, but is hanging tough as week two got underway yesterday, placed 11th in the General Classification after a solid opening standza.
And he admits dealing with crashes, or their possibility, is part and parcel of Grand Tour racing.
“They are part of our sport and, nowadays, the equipment and the races organisers help us to ride in a safer way than in the past,” said the South African climbing specialist.
“Sometimes crashes happen and if you’re involved it is difficult to accept. Porte was my favorite for the final victory of the Tour, but unfortunately his race was over – that’s cycling.
“I head into the race bearing in mind that it’s fundamental to find the proper balance between the risk and the performance. Even if sometimes crashes are not linked to the risk which a rider takes, but more to the bad luck or fate.
“In this case, there’s nothing to do other than get back to the bike and trying to reach the finish line.”
The withdrawal of the likes of Porte and Valverde may well pave the way for Meintjes to achieve his pre-race goal of improving on a superb eighth placed overall in 2016, which really launched the Pretoria-native among cycling’s elite.
Yet, if he had it his way, the 25-year-old would be overtaking Porte, Valverde and the likes of race leader Chris Froome on his way to winning the Grand Boucle.
“There’s always a shadow of sadness when you read in the stage results list that some riders are out because of crashes,” he added.
“I would have preferred to overtake Alejandro, Richie or Geraint by using my legs. However, when a rider sets their pre-race aims, it’s necessary to take into account that some top contenders could face problems, like crashes, illnesses, mechanical problems.
“I prefer to keep my mind set on my performances and to try to achieve my personal goals.”
Meintjes is five minutes off the lead of Sky’s reigning Tour champion Froome and just over a minute outside the top 10, while he is also second in the race for the white jersey – awarded for the Tour’s best young rider – behind Orica-Scott’s Briton Adam Yates, who won the title last year.
Froome, Astana’s Fabio Aru (second place) and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana (ninth) are living up to their pre-race billing of being among the leading contenders, but Meintjes is pleased with his performances so far, having secured 11th, 12th and 14th placed finishes so far, and feels better is to come.
“All the GC contenders have achieved high level performances on the climbs, the quality was very high especially in Stage 7, where the GC contenders battled amongst themselves and the race pace was demanding,” said Meintjes.
“I have had pretty good legs until now and I feel my performances level can improve in the next two weeks.
“I feel things can always be done better. I always want to improve, even if I managed to achieve some solid performances. I always raced with the GC top contenders apart from Stage 9, which was a very demanding stage.
“However, I succeeded in limiting the gap and I even climbed up two places in the GC and now I’m close to the top 10.”
Coming into the race with a view to improving on last year’s impressive showing – Meintjes finished just under seven minutes behind winner Froome – the 2013 Under-23 UCI World Road Championships runner-up feels consistency rather than stage wins are key.
“There are no moments for recovering energy during the stages, you must be always focused on the race and must always have good legs for facing every situation of the race,” he said.
“I feel the best strategy is to be consistent every day and achieve solid performances. It’s fundamental to avoid any burnout and to exploit my energy in the best way.
“I’m very pleased with the team and how they are supporting me. I could not aim for better support by my teammates, during the race and also outside.
“The group spirit is great, it’s so nice to spend time with my teammates and the team staff and this is something very important for achieving top goals in the Tour.”
Apart from the withdrawals due to injury, one other high-profile exit to grab headlines was Peter Sagan after the Bora–Hansgrohe rider was ejected for elbowing Britain’s Mark Cavendish in the sprint finish to Stage 4.
Not being a sprinting specialist, Meintjes is not used to such frantic finishes, but feels the right decision was made.
He said: “I’m not a specialist of the sprints, I feel I never lived those kind of situations so for me it’s difficult to describe the dynamic of that action and to evaluate it.
“What is really important is that the judgment should be standard for all these kinds of situations, this will help a lot.”