Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana) took a breakaway victory on stage 15 of the Tour de France as he made it over the first-category Pic de Nore to out-sprint Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) in Carcassonne.
The Danish sprinter was part of a 29-strong breakaway group that went clear after more than 40km of constant attacking, and then survived a tough end to the stage as the likes of Rafal Majka (Bora-Hasngrohe) and Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) attacked on the 19km climb before a long descent to the finish.
As a smaller group emerged on the climb and descent, Cort Nielsen benefited from having team-mate and compatriot Michael Valgren in the same group, who then covered counter-attacks after Cort Nielsen had pulled clear with Izagirre and Mollema.
Those three riders cooperated well through the final eight kilometres, with only a brief attack from Izagirre with 1.5km to go forcing Cort Nielsen to do any work.
On paper the strongest sprinter in the group, Cort Nielsen led through the final kilometre and opened his sprint with 150m to go to comfortably take his first Tour de France stage victory.
Back in the peloton the only action of the day came on the Pic de Nore when Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) attacked at briefly opened a gap of more than a minute.
However the Irish rider was caught by the Team Sky-controlled peloton on the subsequent descent, and the peloton then rolled in more than 13 minutes down with Geraint Thomas having enjoyed a relatively stress-free day in yellow.
How it happened
The flag drop of stage 15 of the Tour de France took place directly beneath the spectacular Millau viaduct and immediately saw attacks as Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), sitting nearly 40 minutes down in GC, was the first to try his luck before being brought back by Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) and Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The first categorised climb started just seven kilometres into the stage and saw more move as Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) accelerated to be followed by moves by Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and Anthony Perez (Cofidis) but with no one able to establish a decisive break.
With 20km on the clock the next threatening move came from Yates, Barguil, and Gregor Mühlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) who were able to open a lead of 15 seconds but were not able to get any further away as the peloton ebbed and flowed as other riders counter-attacked before being repeatedly chased down.
After a 15km stint off the front, a concerted effort from Quick-Step Floors saw the leading trio caught and the remaining riders in the vastly reduced peloton start the fight to form the break afresh.
A few more attacks came from Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin0 came to nothing, before a large group of riders took advantage of the crosswinds on an exposed stretch of road to go clear.
In the move were Daniel Martínez (EF Education First-Drapac), Silvan Dillier (Ag2r La Mondiale), Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb), Amäel Moinard and Florian Vachon (Fortuneo-Samsic), Sonny Colbrelli, Ion Izagirre, and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), Damian Howson and Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott), Daniele Bennati, Imanol Erviti, and Marc Soler (Movistar), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), Peter Sagan, Rafal Majka, and Pawel Poljanski (Bora-Hansgrohe), Magnus Cort Nielsen and Michael Valgren (Astana), Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data), Arthur Vichot (Groupama-FDJ), Lilian Calmejane, Fabian Grellier, and Romain Sicard (Direct Energie), Bauke Mollema, Julien Bernard, and Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) and Jesús Herrada (Cofidis)
However the group was too big for Calmejane, who put in another acceleration with 125km remaining to pull clear of the rest of the breakaway, quickly opening a gap of 50 seconds over the rest of the breakaway, with the peloton a further 4-30 in arrears.
A local rider hailing from the Tarn region, Calmejane enjoyed around 20km alone ahead of the break to soak up the cheers of the local fans, before thinking better of a long range solo move and dropping back to the rest of the break.
With 85km to go, and the gap to the bunch at more than seven minutes, the attacks started out of the breakaway once again with Niki Terpstra and Toms Skujins pushing on shortly before the feedzone, a move that came to nothing, before Greg Van Avermaet launched the next attack eight kilometres later, the Belgian also being pulled back.
After Van Avermaet was pulled back, Grellier launched the next move which proved more successful as he was able to sustain a decent gap before being joined by Bernard to form a new leading duo a minute ahead of the rest of the break as they went through the intermediate sprint with 60km to go.
Grellier and Bernard went onto the final climb, the first-category Pic de Nore, with a lead of 1-50 over the break and more than 12 minutes over the peloton, where Team Sky were still tapping away and setting a steady tempo on the front.
With the stage win riding away from him, the pace started to ramp up in the chase group with Ion Izagirre raising the pace to set up an attack by team-mate Domenico Pozzovivo who caused damage in the group but was unable to get away.
Other moves followed by Michael Valgren (Astana), Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data), and Damian Howson (Mitchelton-Scott) which saw Sagan dropped, a development that saw Rafal Majka given the chance to launch an attack on his own to ride up to and past Grellier and Bernard.
Meanwhile there was action in the peloton as Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) attacked on the lower slopes of the climb in an attempt to make up some of the time that he lost through a puncture on stage 14. Sitting at 6-54 in the general classification, Martin was no immediate threat to Team Sky, who let the Irish leader have a lead of 30 seconds before raising the pace to keep him in check.
At the top of the climb Majka was first over the summit, holding a 30 second lead over Mollema and Cort Nielsen, with Calmejane, Pozzovivo, Izagirre, Bernard, and Valgren a little further back.
12-02 later Dan Martin crossed the top of the Pic de Nore, with the considerably slimmed down peloton around 1-15 further back.
Onto the descent and while Majka pushed on at the front of the race there was a little hesitation in the chase as the. second and third groups came back together.
In the bunch Team Sky continued to lead on the descent, although Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) did at one point try to open a gap, only to find himself losing his back wheel and only just managing to stay upright on a left-hand bend.
As the road flattened out with 15km to go and Majka facing a headwind towards the finish, the Polish rider was caught by the chase group, and there was also a catch further back in the race as Martin was caught at the base of the descent.
With eight kilometres to go the attacks for the stage win began as Magnus Cort Nielsen (Astana) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) both launching accelerations, with the former managing to go clear with Izagirre and Mollema while the chase stalled behind as Valgren patrolled the moves behind.
Despite Cort Nielsen being by far the strongest sprinter on paper, Izagirre and Mollema cooperated with the Dane into the finish, with Izagirre only launching the first attack with 1.5km to go.
Izagirre was swiftly closed down by Cort Nielsen, who then led into the finishing straight looking over his right shoulder at the two climbers in his wheel.
Unsurprisingly neither Mollema nor Izagirre could challenge Cort Nielsen, who comfortably won the sprint ahead of Izagirre, while Valgren counter-attacked from the group behind to take fourth place, celebrating his team-mate’s victory as he crossed the line.
Back in the bunch all of the general classification contenders enjoyed a relaxing ride to the finish, eventually crossing the line more than 13 minutes back and with all of the big-name riders in touch.
Tour de France 2018, stage 15: Millau to Caracassonne, 181.5km
1. Magnus Cort Nielsen (Den) Astana, in 4-25-52
2. Jon Izagirre Insausti (Spa) Bahrain-Merida, at same time
3. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo, at 2 secs
4. Michael Valgren (Den) Astana, at 29 secs
5. Toms Skujins (Lat) Trek-Segafredo, at 34 secs
6. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Bahrain-Merida, at same time
7. Lilian Calmejane (Fra) Direct Energie, at same time
8. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 37 secs
9. Nikias Arndt (Ger) Team Sunweb, at 2-31
10. Julien Bernard (Fra) Trek-Segafredo, at 2-38
General classification after stage 15
1. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky, in 62-49-47
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky, at 01-39
3. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 1-50
4. Primoz Roglic (Slo) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 02-38
5. Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale, at 03-21
6. Mikel Landa (Esp) Movistar , at 03-42
7. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 03-57
8. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 04-23
9. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana, at 06-14
10. Daniel Martin (Irl) UAE Team Emirates, at 06-54