LE CAP D’AGDE, France (AP) — Andre Greipel of Germany led a photo-finish sprint to win the 13th stage of the Tour de France on Saturday, while Britain’s Bradley Wiggins retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey as the race headed south to the Mediterranean.
The windy and flat 134.8-mile run, with one major climb from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Le Cap d’Agde, was tailored for a win by one of the race’s sprinters.
Greipel’s ability to get over the super-steep Mont Saint-Clair climb, in the picturesque port town of Sete about 14 miles from the finish, helped pave the way for his victory. Several other top sprinters — such as Britain’s Mark Cavendish — struggled up the hill and fell back.
Greipel, who turns 30 on Monday, earned his third stage victory of this year’s Tour after winning the fourth and fifth stages in sprint finishes. Still-photo imagery showed he won by half a wheel’s length ahead of Slovakian rider Peter Sagan. Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway was third.
Wiggins trailed close behind in the main pack. Overall, he leads his second-place Sky teammate and fellow Briton Christopher Froome by 2 minutes, 5 seconds. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy is third, 2:23 back, and defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia is 3:19 off the pace in fourth.
Saturday’s route was known as a transitional stage because it was mostly flat, and guided riders away from their last big test — the Alps — and toward their next, the Pyrenees.
Greipel’s Lotto Belisol team did the hard work of leading the pack through a wind-swept ride along the shore in pursuit of breakaway riders Michael Albasini and Alexandre Vinokourov, ultimately catching them.
In a bold move, with less than a mile left, Wiggins powered up to the front of the pack with Sky teammate Boasson Hagen on his back wheel, trying to set up the Norwegian for the stage win.
Greipel said he “speculated” that such a plot was being hatched. He pulled up just behind Hagen, then whizzed around him after a final bend and held on to the line.
“I’m really happy with this victory ... it was once again a team effort,” said Greipel, who has four career Tour stage wins. “The sprint was very long. I was just on the wheel of Boasson Hagen, and I saw that I could win if I just gave a little extra at the end.”
Wiggins said he led the late surge because he wanted to stay in front and out of possible trouble in a big final bend in the road. He also wanted to help Boasson Hagen to return a favor for his support in the Alps.
“Once we knew that Cavendish wasn’t going to come back, everybody said we’d try to do the job for Edvald,” Wiggins said. “Sometimes it’s just good to get on the front and try to repay a friend of mine back.”
Still, Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez, who had been leading in a two-man breakaway that was overtaken by Wiggins, showed his frustration with an angry hand gesture against the man in the yellow jersey.
Sanchez said he felt Sky was being too dominant and didn’t understand why Wiggins was working to help a teammate win a stage while in yellow himself.
“It’s unfortunate. I can’t look after everyone in the peloton,” said Wiggins, adding that he does “love” Sanchez as a person. “It’s a shame he feels like that.”
Sanchez later appeared to have second thoughts about his first reaction and wrote on Twitter, “I beg (at) bradwiggins’ pardon. He is the leader of the race so he and his team have the right to do whatever they want.”
As the riders neared the coast, the stage’s big challenges arrived, including a windy ride between the Mediterranean Sea and the Bassin de Thau — known for its oyster farms.
Riders swung their bikes left to right as if in slow motion as they arrived at Mont Saint-Clair, a mid-grade ascent over roughly a mile — but with an average gradient of 10.2 percent.
Evans attacked on the Mont Saint-Clair and got a few seconds ahead of Wiggins, but the Briton and his other closest rivals for the yellow jersey all hung close on the Australian’s back wheel.
However, the climb and the windy road to the finish split up the pack, with sprinters like Cavendish and Australia’s Matt Goss in a bunch that was more than 8½ minutes behind Greipel and the overall leaders.
Sunday’s 14th stage takes riders along two big climbs over a 118-mile trek from Limoux to Foix.