MENDE, France (AP) — Michael Matthews soloed to victory on the 14th stage of the Tour de France on Saturday when defending champion Tadej Pogacar tried in vain to regain time on leader Jonas Vingegaard.
Matthews’ fourth stage win came five years after the Australian last tasted victory in France.
The one-day classic specialist was in a group of 23 riders who broke from the pack after a frenetic start to the stage punctuated by a flurry of attacks on hilly ground from Saint-Etienne to Mende.
After spending the day at the front of the race, Matthews looked like he was about to crack when he was caught by Italian Alberto Bettiol on the last climb, but his grit helped him stay in contention and launch a counterattack that paid off.
“Matthews put on a show. He has days like that when he is very strong,” said French rider Thibaut Pinot, who completed the stage podium behind Matthews and Bettiol. “He really amazes me. Doing the sprints he does, and climbing like he does, in his field he is the best.”
With its constant ups and downs, the stage profile through the Massif Central was ideal for a breakaway. Not surprisingly, many riders with no personal ambition in the general classification were on the attack from the off to tear apart the peloton.
More surprisingly, defending champion Pogacar was also on the move as he tried to upset his rivals just 10 kilometers into the 193-kilometer route, forcing Vingegaard to react and chase.
The unorthodox strategy played havoc in the bunch as Primoz Roglic, a key lieutenant of Vingegaard within the Jumbo-Visma team, struggled at the back.
Belgian allrounder Wout Van Aert, also riding for Jumbo-Visma, worked hard to pace his leader through the mayhem and things finally calmed down after an hour of spectacular and brutal racing as the group of main contenders eased the pace to let the breakaway form.
“I accelerated a bit, I played a game a little bit, but they have a too strong team,” Pogacar said.
Matthews, from the BikeExchange-Jayco team, launched a solo effort about 50 kilometers from the finish and reduced the leading group to just four men.
He was joined at the front by Bettiol in the Côte de la Croix Neuve, a short but punishing three-kilometer ascent with a gradient of more than 10% followed by a short descent across the airfield to the finish line.
Matthews fought hard to stay in Bettiol’s wheel then countered his rival near the top of the climb and never looked back.
The truce in the group of main contenders lasted until the Côte de la Croix Neuve when Pogacar attacked again. Vingagaard was unimpressed and followed at ease, with the pair crossing the line 12 minutes, 34 seconds behind.
“I tried,” Pogacar said. “The legs are there . . . I will keep trying.”
Overall, Vingegaard leads Pogacar, still by two minutes, 22 seconds. Geraint Thomas, who was dropped by the pair in the final climb, was third, 2:43 off the pace.
Before Monday’s rest day and a final week marked by the crossing of the Pyrenees and an individual time trial before the race reaches Paris in eight days, Sunday’s stage from Rodez to Carcassonne should favor sprinters.
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