Overall leader Jonas Vingegaard tracked Tadej Pogacar’s attack all the way to the stage 14 finish line as the defending champion tried, but failed, to take time off his Danish rival on another tense, baking day at the Tour de France on Saturday.
Australian Michael Matthews won the stage, a sizzling 192km run south-west from Saint-Etienne, after a see-saw struggle with Italian rider Alberto Bettiol up the final hill.
After three days in the mountains and a tense struggle Friday, gathering fatigue was exacerbated as the road temperature hit 60C as the race entered rustic, hilly terrain with dry stone walls everywhere.
Only 40 kilometres in, Pogacar had tried an attack before Vingegaard’s Jumbo team reeled the Slovenian UAE man.
“It’s a race. I tried and I’ll keep doing that,” said Pogacar who remains 2min 22sec off Vingegaard.
“Pogacar got away early when I was dozing,” admitted the yellow jersey.
“But my team pulled hard and got him back.”
The sweating peloton settled down as it raced along the narrow, roads packed with rowdy fans in otherwise empty countryside, Matthews and 20 other riders broke away.
The first time the 31-year-old Matthews tried to shake off his companions, he was reeled in and overtaken by Bettiol.
The inspired Australian rallied, caught Bettiol and left him trailing to take a fourth Tour de France stage win by a clear margin.
– Orders from the wife –
Matthews credited his wife for the tactics that broke a four year gap in wins on the Tour.
“My wife said ‘if you want to win try something different, something people don’t expect from you’,” he said.
“So that’s what I did. Hopefully today my wife and my daughter are proud of me,” said the BikeExchange rider.
“I wanted to show my daughter why I’m away so much and this is why we sacrifice so much.”
Some 10 minutes later, Pogacar attacked Vingegaard at the same place with his trademark kick on a steep climb 5km from the finish
Vingegaard skipped up behind with ease and held on all the way to the line at the Mende Aerodrome even when the champion tried yet again to drop him.
The man in yellow then cruised alongside Pogacar and held him by the hand briefly.
Ineos pair Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates both dropped 20 seconds but remain third and fifth respectively at 2min 43 and 4min 06 respectively.
Frenchman Romain Bardet ended the day fourth overall at 3min 03sec in his home region, where banners bearing his name hung from buildings, walls and trees.
The searing heat made the tarmac soft on some corners and 2,000 litres of cold-water were poured onto the newer roads around 20 mins before the peloton passed.
“It was very hot, I guess 40C (the air), mainly in the closing section near Mende. But I don’t mind the heat, I cope quite well in it,” said Vingegaard.
Sunday’s stage to Carcassonne will see th heatwave peak before three days in the Pyrenees next week.
“I have a lot of respect for Tadej, but maybe now I’ll attack him,” said the Dane.