Chris Froome survived a scare to retain the yellow jersey as Bauke Mollema won a thrilling stage 15 of the Tour de France on Sunday.
With Romain Bardet of AG2R on the attack, Froome suffered a rear-wheel problem on the approach to the category one climb up Col de Peyra Taillade and lost almost a minute to his rivals as he took the wheel of Team Sky team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski before being paced up the hill by Mikel Nieve and Sergio Henao.
Mikel Landa then answered questions about his loyalty to the cause by dropping out of the lead group to finish helping Froome bridge the gap.
It was an extraordinary effort by Froome, coming as it did during such a tough climb, but his efforts ensured he takes an 18-second lead over Fabio Aru into Monday’s rest day, with Bardet a further five seconds back in third place.
“I had a problem with my rear wheel that had to be changed,” Froome said. “Kwaitkowski gave me his wheel because the team car was far away.
“We did all we could to return to the top of the race. Thanks to my team-mates, Sergio Henao and Mikel Nieve, who helped me. It was a time of stress. I thought I might not see the lead again.”
The main group of contenders marked each other over the rolling final kilometres, but Irishman Dan Martin was allowed to pull clear with around eight kilometres left and claw back more time.
The Quick-Step Floors rider, still feeling the effects of a stage nine crash, picked up 14 seconds to move up to fifth place ahead of Landa, now 72 seconds off yellow.
It had been clear since midway through the day – a 189.5km stage through the beautiful Massif Centra range to Le Puy en Velay – that stage honours would go to the breakaway, with Sky happy to let a 28-man group pull further and further away.
German Tony Martin tried his luck with a long-range attack, but after the Katusha-Alpecin man was caught on the Peyra Taillade, there were a series of attacks and counter-attacks.
Mollema attacked on the descent of the Peyra Taillade, and held off a chasing group of Warren Barguil, Primoz Roglic, Diego Ulissi, and Tony Gallopin over the final categorised climb, the Cote de Saint-Vidal, to ride to the finish alone.
“It’s really amazing,” Mollema said. “I’m so happy to win a stage at the Tour de France. I’ve worked for it so hard in the last few years. That was a big goal for me.
“I just gave it a try in the last 30km. It was a long time riding alone. It was close to the chases at the end. But I made it. This is the biggest win of my career so far. The Tour de France has always been my dream. I’m incredibly happy.”
Ulissi finished second ahead of Gallopin in third, with Warren Barguil, who claimed most of the King of the Mountain points and winner of Friday’s Bastille Day 13th stage, fourth at 23 seconds.
Australia’s Michael Matthews won the intermediate sprint to continue to eat into Marcel Kittel’s lead for the green jersey. Matthews is 79 points behind the German, who won five of the first 11 stages to establish a huge advantage.
Stage 15 result:
1 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo 4:41:47″
2 Diego Ulissi (Ita) UAE Team Emirates +19″
3 Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto-Soudal
4 Primoz Roglic (Slv) LottoNL-Jumbo)
5 Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Sunweb +23″
6 Nicolas Roche (Ire) BMC Racing Team +1:00″
7 Lilian Calmejane (Fra) Direct Energie +1:04″
8 Jan Bakelants (Bel) AG2R La Mondiale
9 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ
10 Serge Pauwels (Bel) Team Dimension Data
General Classification standings:
1 Chris Froome (Gbr) Team Sky 64:40:21″
2 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team +18″
3 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale +23″
4 Rigoberto Uran (Col) Cannondale-Drapac +29″
5 Daniel Martin (Ire) Quick-Step Floors +1:12″
6 Mikel Landa (Esp) Team Sky +1:17″
7 Simon Yates (Gbr) Orica-Scott +2:02″
8 Louis Meintjes (Rsa) UAE Team Emirates +5:09″
9 Alberto Contador (Esp) Trek-Segafredo +5:37″
10 Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing Team +6:05″