On a day when many wondered if Mark Cavendish could equal Eddy Merckx’s record by winning his 34th Tour de France stage, it was instead the turn of Nils Politt to take his first as a breakaway prospered in Nimes.
This 159-kilometre stage 12 from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux looked tailor-made for a sprint on paper, but that did not account for the gusting Mistral, which would split the peloton at the start and allow a powerful 13-man group to get away and contest the honours.
The 27-year-old Politt emerged with the biggest victory of his career to date, forcing splits in the break and then riding clear of Harry Sweeny and Imanol Erviti with 12km to go, soloing to the finish.
Cavendish, who moved on to 33 stage wins with his third of this year’s race in Valence on Tuesday, led home the main peloton some 16 minutes later, padding his lead in the green jersey by picking up the final three points on the line, while Tadej Pogacar retained yellow.
The Slovenian continues to lead overall by five minutes and 18 seconds from Rigoberto Uran, with Jonas Vingegaard third a further 14 seconds back.
With wind speeds high, organisers delayed the start in anticipation of the high pace, and the attacks flew at the start.
But once the group containing the likes of Politt, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Brent Van Moer and Stefan Bissegger had started to build an advantage, the peloton sat up and let them go – Cavendish’s Deceuninck-QuickStep not forcing the chase as Julian Alaphilippe was in the front group.
Politt’s victory will have cheered his Bora-Hansgrohe team after their three-time former world champion Peter Sagan was forced to withdraw from the race before the stage start with a knee injury.
“It’s a dream to win a stage of the Tour de France,” Politt said. “Today we heard Peter had to leave the race with knee problems so that changed our tactics. At the start with the crosswinds it was a big group that got away.
“I felt good in the last few days, I was trying to do my best today but to come away with a victory is unbelievable.”
Cavendish, a stage winner in Nimes before, might have known it was not to be his day in the morning when race organisers failed to deliver the green skinsuit he favours, forcing him to ride in a less aerodynamic jersey.
Though there was no sprint, the Manxman could be grateful for a less stressful day after the double ascent of Mont Ventoux on Wednesday.
“I think most guys were (grateful) to be fair,” the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider said. “But it’s still heavy roads around Provence, you stick to the tarmac.
“(Tomorrow) will be similar roads to today, just 60km longer. I reckon we’ll get cooked up before we hit the Pyrenees.”
Friday’s stage to Carcassonne is listed as flat in the roadbook, but the citadel has never in Tour history witnessed a bunch finish and this sort of terrain suggests another breakaway will prosper.
That would leave Cavendish needing to survive the Pyrenees before the next sprint opportunity comes on stage 19 to Libourne.