Norway’s Alexander Kristoff sprinted to his second win of this year’s Tour de France as Vincenzo Nibali survived a rain-hit 15th stage to consolidate his overall lead.
Kristoff produced an unstoppable late surge in Nimes to comfortably beat Heinrich Haussler into second place and Peter Sagan into third.
There was almost a very different outcome though, after the day’s two breakaway riders, Martin Elmiger and Jack Bauer, capitalised on the wet weather and a consequently late chase from the peloton to take their lead all the way to the finishing straight.
The duo had a 13-second gap going under the 1km-to-go banner and were still eight seconds ahead with 750m left, but despite a desperate sprint from Bauer, he was agonisingly overtaken inside the final 100m and eventually finished tenth.
Wet and wild
Nibali, meanwhile, managed to stay safe on a day in which high speeds, strong winds and torrential rain caused widespread tension in the peloton.
With all of his closest rivals also avoiding incident, the Italian retains his 4min 37sec lead in the general classification over second-placed Alejandro Valverde, while Romain Bardet stays 13 seconds further back in third.
Kristoff, who also won stage 12, said: “It was close – really close. The break were strong. When it rained a lot at the end, it was difficult to close them down, but luckily we just caught them on the line and I’m really happy.”
Stage 15 was supposed to be a quiet transitional day suited to the sprinters, but with high winds buffeting the route and a storm hovering over the finish, any hopes the general classification contenders had of an easy stage quickly evaporated.
Split in peloton
There was a particular scare with 75km remaining, when a sudden increase in pace forced a split in the peloton and caused both Richie Porte and Joaquim Rodriguez to be dropped. While Porte was able to chase back, Rodriguez and a dozen other riders never regained contact and eventually finished over 12 minutes down.
Rain then became the most pressing concern after the heavens opened and left huge pools of standing water by the roadside. The peloton eased up to accommodate the conditions and although there were no crashes of note, their slower pace meant they still had a minute to make up on Bauer and Elmiger with 15km to go.
A series of roundabouts then stunted their progress further, but while the Giant-Shimano team of Marcel Kittel fell away, the other sprint squads managed to make up enough ground in the final 5km to get the outcome they had been hoping for, if only just.
Monday is the Tour's second rest day, but racing will resume with a mountainous 16th stage from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon on Tuesday.
Stage 15 result
1 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha, 4:56:43
2 Heinrich Haussler (Aus) IAM Cycling, same time
3 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale, st
4 Andre Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol, st
5 Mark Renshaw (Aus) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step, st
6 Bryan Coquard (Fra) Europcar, st
7 Ramunas Navardauskas (Lit) Garmin-Sharp, st
8 Romain Feillu (Fra) Bretagne-Seche Environnement, st
9 Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-GreenEdge, st
10 Jack Bauer (NZ) Garmin-Sharp, st
1 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana, 66:49:37
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar, +4:37
3 Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale, +4:50
4 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ, +5:06
5 Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC, +5:49
6 Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) Ag2r-La Mondiale, +6:08
7 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin, +8:33
8 Leopold Konig (Cze) Team NetApp-Endura, +9:32
9 Laurens Ten Dam (Ned) Belkin, +10:01
10 Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar, +10:48