Kasper Asgreen outsprinted the chasing peloton to take victory from a breakaway on stage 18 of the Tour de France in Bourg-en-Bresse.
The remaining sprint teams fell short on the 185km stage from Moutiers as a four-strong break held on by less than 50 metres, with Asgreen beating fellow escapees Pascal Eenkhoorn and Jonas Abrahamsen to take his first career Tour stage win.
Jasper Philipsen, hoping to add to his four stage wins in this first opportunity for the quick men in over a week, came home in fourth. There was perhaps some karma in that, given the aggressive tactics Philipsen had used earlier in the stage when trying to block Eenkhoorn’s bid to join the breakaway.
The 185km stage from Moutiers brought no changes at the top of the general classification, in which defending champion Jonas Vingegaard took an all-but-unassailable seven-and-a-half minute lead over Tadej Pogacar on Wednesday.
This slightly lumpy stage offered the prospect of a breakaway denying the quick men if enough riders could get up the road, although the sprinters who survived the mountains were desperate for their chance, with perhaps only the Champs-Elysees left after this.
But with exhausted legs throughout the peloton after some punishing days in the Alps only three – Asgreen, Abrahamsen and Victor Campernaerts – chanced their arm and were rarely given more than a minute’s advantage.
That short gap allowed Campernaerts’ team-mate Eenkhoorn to bridge over with 60km to go, despite being forced on to the verge by Philipsen as he tried to get away from the main bunch.
Even as a quartet the front group appeared to have little chance, but the number of teams interested in a pure sprint has been steadily diminished in this Tour with the loss of quick men Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan and Fabio Jakobsen, the latter two team-mates of riders in this breakaway.
Only Philipsen’s Alpecin-Deceuninck squad and Dylan Groenewegen’s Jayco-Alula seemed fully committed and, as the road narrowed into a couple of tight technical corners, it became apparent that the scales were tipping in favour of those out in front.
Asgreen came around Abrahamsen inside the final 100 metres, with the chasing Eenkhoorn unable to get on terms, earning a first stage victory of this Tour for Soudal-QuickStep, a perennial winning machine who had not reached stage 18 without cause for celebration for more than a decade.
“The situation was not ideal,” Asgreen said. “We’d have preferred to have gone with maybe six or seven (in the break) but also the last week of the Tour coming off some really, really hard days, we’ve seen it before that even a small group can manage to beat the sprint teams so I didn’t rule it out.
“It was a team time trial to the finish. I really couldn’t have done it without Pascal, Victor and Jonas. They all did amazing out there and to be honest we all deserved the win with the work we put in but I’m really happy to come away with it.
“It means so much. With the period I had in the last year since my crash at the Tour de Suisse and having to leave the Tour de France I’ve come a long way. To cap it off with victory like this I really want to dedicate it to all the people who helped me throughout the last year.”
Philipsen played down the incident involving Eenkhoorn as he congratulated the breakaway.
“For sure I wanted to sprint for the win, but they stayed away in front, good work from them,” he said.
“I just wanted to go for the sprint, not have too many guys in front, but in the end (Eenkhoorn) bridged and for sure it was the right move for him. I think we did everything we could. They had amazing legs today.”