CARCASSONNE, France (Reuters) - Denmark’s Magnus Cort Nielsen claimed victory on the Tour de France when he prevailed in a three-man sprint at the end of a long breakaway in the 15th stage on Sunday.
The Astana rider was the overwhelming favorite as a sprint specialist in the finale and he duly delivered, comfortably beating Spain’s Ion Izagirre and Dutchman Bauke Mollema, who were second and third, respectively.
It is Cort Nielsen’s third grand tour win after he won two stages in the Vuelta a Espana in 2016, and Astana’s second in this year’s Tour after Omar Fraile won Saturday’s 14th stage.
“Everything went very well ... it’s the best victory of my career,” said Cort Nielsen.
“I was feeling good in the finale and felt confident. I did exactly what I wanted to do in terms of strategy.”
Briton Geraint Thomas retained the overall lead after a 181.5-km hilly ride from Millau through the vineyards of Minervois, Corbieres and Cabardes in Southwestern France.
He leads Team Sky team mate and defending champion Chris Froome by 1:39 and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin by 1:50 before Monday’s rest day as the race heads to the Pyrenees.
A 29-man breakaway took shape early on, and after they had built an advantage of more than 10 minutes to make sure the win would be decided between them, the fireworks started.
Tour debutants Fabien Grellier and Julien Bernard, the son of Jean-Francois, third overall in the 1987 race, attacked with 70 kilometers left.
But Poland’s Rafal Majka, who has three Tour stage wins to his name, jumped away from the group and chased the duo down, whizzing past them to reach the top of the Pic de Nore, a 12.3-km climb at an average gradient of 6.3 percent, in first position.
He had a 30-second lead, but with a flat, crosswind-exposed stretch leading to the line, his chances were slim and he was caught by a group of seven chasers.
France’s Lilian Calmejane, in his home region, had no team mate in the group unlike Cort Nielsen, Mollema and Izagirre. He was isolated when things heated up and had to concede defeat, breaking down in tears after crossing the line in seventh place, 34 seconds off the pace.
The peloton crossed the line 13:11 behind.
France’s Romain Bardet, fifth overall, attacked in the descent from the Pic de Nore and went off the road, in a desperate attempt to unsettle his rivals.
“That was crazy,” said Thomas.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis