OLMAR, France (AFP) – Slovakia’s Peter Sagan kept enough strength in reserve in the hills of Alsace to win a reduced bunch sprint for his 12th overall Tour de France stage win on Wednesday.
France’s Julian Alaphilippe held onto the leader’s yellow jersey and even had a tilt at the stage win with a downhill charge after the final climb.
Alaphilippe, who was cheered throughout by French fans again on Wednesday, will start as the leader for the next stage – the first real mountain test that concludes with a tough summit finish in the Vosges.
“My legs are killing me. Stage six is going to be a huge test, for me and everyone,” said Alaphilippe, who took the overall lead on Monday with a gun-slinging offensive from 15 kilometres.
“It’s also hard talking to the press half the evening after a race, which makes me respect people like Chris Froome,” the 27-year-old former soldier said of the four-time Tour winner, who has spent 59 stages in the storied jersey but who is out of contention after breaking a leg in June.
Sagan’s win will be popular with fans following two near misses so far for the charismatic former triple world champion and six-time green sprint jersey winner.
“I try every day, and then one day you get it,” said the burly Sagan who had a slow start to the season due to sickness.
“I suffered a bit in the climbs. But I had to get into the sprint, I was patient. I’m 47 points ahead in the race for the green jersey now.”
Sagan turned on the power from 150 metres out to beat pre-race favourites including Jumbo Visma’s Wout van Aert, a breakout star of the race who came second, while Italy’s Matteo Trentin came third.
Van Aert, riding in his debut Tour since converting from cyclo-cross, moved to within 14 seconds of the overall lead and maintains his under-25’s white jersey as the buzz around him continues to grow.
“I know this region and all the climbs, and they have made it even harder,” Van Aert said of the sixth stage’s mountain-packed run.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas and his Team Ineos co-captain Egan Bernal finished safely in the pack in Colmar after a stage that passed through vineyards and villages of picturesque half-timbered houses.
A parasol was blown by a gust of wind into the racing pack of riders hitting Frenchman Tony Gallopin, who however escaped any real damage.
Thomas was typically dry when asked what he expected as the peloton headed off in the morning, saying, “I’m expecting the worst and hoping for the best.”
The 2019 Tour, with little time-trialling and mountains galore, should prove a climbers’ dream.
On Wednesday, the specialist climbers and those who can keep up in the hills were given a chance to unsheathe their swords on the slopes below the medieval Koenigsberg Chateau, the first category two climb of the Tour.
Thomas tweeted a selfie of himself chatting with Alaphilippe on Wednesday, describing him as “the darling of France”, the Welshman looked relaxed after the race, despite the upcoming challenge in the next stage.
“Stage six’s the big day, that’s where it all starts really,” the 33-year-old said.
What Thomas describes as ‘the big day’ is a seven-mountain slog culminating in a summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles where Froome enjoyed a breakout win in 2012.