Alexander Kristoff didn’t quite have the legs to sprint to a maiden Tour de France stage triumph but he secured a top three finish on Stage 18 on Thursday.
The UAE Team Emirates sprint king and European champion was well placed in the final metres of the finish into Pau, but had to settle for third behind the French duo of winner Arnaud Demare, of Groupama – FDJ, and Cofidis rider Christophe Laporte.
But the Norwegian capped off a strong team performance. After being led in impressively by his teammates, Kristoff, who sits second in the race for the green jersey, battled hard in the closing kilometres to finish third.
It was a notable team effort from the Emirati formation, with the team’s riders controlling the pace of the peloton for a large portion of the race.
He is second in the points standings but remains some way behind leader Peter Sagan.
Commenting on his finish, Kristoff said: “I didn’t really have the legs in the final kilometre. The team did a lot of work, but unfortunately I did not have the fastest legs and that’s it. I hope in Paris I can win.”
The Norwegian now heads into the final three stages, vying to secure a podium place in the sprint classification.
The final day in the mountains is upon the peloton – and what a day it promises to be. There are no less than six categorised climbs on the 200km route from Lourdes to Laruns and the stage could be one of the highlights of what has been an exhilarating Tour de France.
Should a GC contender attack and succeed in gaining seconds on his rivals, it will make the penultimate day of racing – an Individual Time Trial on Saturday afternoon – even more intriguing.
Demare, who had been accused by Germany’s Andre Greipel of holding on to a car to make it through the mountains on Stage 16, silenced his critics with a superb sprint finish to claim the win on Thursday.
“The best answer I could give Andre Greipel was to win today,” the Frenchman was quoted following his victory.
“Obviously what he said hurt me, and was also insulting. It’s regrettable that people doubt my performances.
“I know I’m not the best in the mountains, but I work hard to make sure I get through them.”
Yellow jersey holder Thomas, of Team Sky, finished 31st and remains 1min 59sec ahead of the Netherland’s Tom Dumoulin while his team-mate Chris Froome remains in the third position.
“I think we’re expecting the worst, hoping for the best,” Thomas said.
“I think guys will try to take any opportunity they can. It will be interesting, but we’ve been riding really well all race.”
There was another crash on Thursday with Colombia’s Nairo Quintana and Britain’s Adam Yates among the several riders who were caught.
Slovakia’s Peter Sagan had been the victim of a huge crash himself on Wednesday and the sprint king wants to just get over the finish line after suffering some big injuries.
“I can’t complain, I could be worse,” Sagan stated after the completion of Stage 18.
“After what happened yesterday with the crash, I was in a lot of pain today. I think tomorrow will be much harder, but I consider myself lucky that, after such a crash, I’m still in the race and not sitting at home.
“But it was my own mistake yesterday. There was no motorbike in front of me. I flew into the forest, like a bird.”
The 200.5km long 19th stage of the iconic race is set to get underway on Friday with the final stage set to take in Paris on July 29.
Groupama-FDJ’s Demare held off Christophe Laporte of Cofidis and Alexander Kristoff of UAE Team Emirates in a sprint finish to claim his second career Tour win and his first this year.
Team Sky’s Thomas crossed the line with the front group to ensure he holds on to his advantage of one minute and 59 seconds over Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb going into Friday’s mountain test in the Pyrenees.
Demare’s stage win came on the day that German sprinter Andre Greipel, already out of this year’s Tour, apologised to him on Twitter after suggesting in an earlier post that Demare had used illegitimate means in order to avoid missing the time cut when struggling on the Col du Portet on Wednesday.
Despite Greipel’s apology, Demare said he had used his comments as motivation.
“I can thank Greipel today,” he said. “I thought of him a lot.”
On Thursday morning, Greipel wrote: “My apology go out to @ArnaudDemare and @GroupamaFDJ as I have had not the right to make that tweet based on GPS time, which can be wrong, plus I got the incorrect times he lost on the last hill. I’m sorry. Lesson learned: don’t tweet about sth you are not part off.”
The first sprint stage since Friday was contested by a vastly depleted field of quick men following the exits of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Greipel, Fernando Gaviria, Dylan Groenewegen and Michael Matthews at various points in the Tour so far.
World champion Peter Sagan was also not the factor he might usually be after suffering a nasty crash on Wednesday’s stage.
The Bora-Hansgrohe rider hobbled on to his bike in the morning but had put his team on the front in the final few kilometres before eventually finishing eighth.
Sagan needs simply to make it to Paris to secure his sixth career green jersey.
After the drama of the past two days in the mountains, this was a largely uneventful stage, no doubt welcome to those still with an eye on the fight for yellow.
Wednesday’s stage winner Nairo Quintana of Movistar was caught in a crash along with Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates with 105km to go but they were soon back on their bikes.