Arnaud Demare fires back at critics with superb sprint to win Stage 18 at Tour de France
UAE Team Emirates rider Kristoff finishes third while Sky's Thomas tightens grip on yellow jersey
Frenchman Arnaud Demare responded to his critics in perfect style on Thursday by winning Stage 18 of the Tour de France with a superb sprint finish.
What was the penultimate chance for a diminished sprint field to snatch some glory was not going to be missed by the fast men of the peloton.
And a day after Slovakian sprint king Peter Sagan suffered injuries in a crash that almost ended his campaign, Demare was keen to capitalise.
Demare had his Groupama team work hard over the stage as they easily chased down an early five-man breakaway, and particularly in the final, technical kilometres of the stage to make sure he was primed for a final burst to the line.
But the Frenchman, who angered stage runner-up Christophe Laporte by veering from his line when he launched his final burst from inside 200 metres, was inspired by comments aimed at him by Germany's Andre Greipel.
Greipel, one of several sprinters who pulled out in the Alps, while others, like Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel, missed the time cut, accused Demare of holding on to a car to make it through the mountains on Stage 16.
"The best answer I could give Andre Greipel was to win today," said Demare. "Obviously what he said hurt me, and was also insulting. It's regrettable that people doubt my performances."
UAE Team Emirates found themselves on the podium for a second straight day after Norwegian sprinter Alesander Kristoff followed up Dan Martin's runner-up finish on Stage 17 to claim third on Thursday.
After being led by his team, Kristoff fought hard in the final sprint, but struggled to close the gap on Demare and Laporte.
“I didn’t really have the legs in the final kilometre," said Kristoff, who sits second in the race for the green jersey. "The team did a lot of work, but unfortunately I did not have the fastest legs and that’s it. I hope in Paris I can win.”
Team Sky's Geraint Thomas finished close behind the sprinters to tighten his grip on the yellow jersey three days before the 21st and final stage in Paris.
The Welshman holds a one minute, 59 seconds lead on Dutch rival Tom Dumoulin Sunweb with four-time champion and teammate Chris Froome in third at 2:31 heading into Friday's 19th stage.
"I think we're expecting the worst, hoping for the best," said Thomas, who is sure to face attacks from his rivals on the final day in the mountains.
"I think guys will try to take any opportunity they can. It will be interesting, but we've been riding really well all race."
Bora's world champion rider Sagan, who failed to get in contention for the final sprint, simply wants to get over the last big climbs before focusing on the final stage on Sunday.
Already mathematically assured of his sixth green jersey for the points competition, the Slovakian is one of the favourites for the final stage on the Champs Elysees.
"I can't complain, I could be worse," said Sagan. "After what happened yesterday with the crash, I was in a lot of pain today.
"I think tomorrow will be much harder, but I consider myself lucky that, after such a crash, I'm still in the race and not sitting at home.
"But it was my own mistake yesterday. There was no motorbike in front of me. I flew into the forest, like a bird."
Colombian Nairo Quintana of Movistar and Briton Adam Yates were among several riders caught up in a crash midway through the race, although both got back on their bikes to finish the stage.
Stage 19 is the final day in the high mountains. Over 200.5km, the peloton will notably tackle the Col d'Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque before a 20km descent to Laruns.
Updated: July 26, 2018 09:08 PM