Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) sprinted to his third victory of this year’s Tour de France, out-kicking John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) to win stage 15.
The two German’s went wheel-to-wheel in a huge sprint in Valence, but just as though it looked like Degenkolb – head rocking – would grab his maiden Tour stage win, Greipel powered past.
With Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep), suffering from stomach problems, in the grupetto, it was left to Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) to complete the top three, with green jersey Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) – who also won the intermediate sprint from the breakaway – finishing fourth.
Race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky), meanwhile, finished safely in the peloton alongside his GC rivals to hold the three-minute advantage he carried into the stage.
For the second day running, Sagan was in the break with intentions of extending his lead in the points classification, with a large group initially going clear at the ten-kilometre mark.
Eventually it thinned to nine riders, with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) involved again, and Sagan’s team-mate Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo), world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) and team-mate Matteo Trentin also involved.
Lars Bak (Lotto-Soudal), former Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) and Simon Geschke (Giant-Alpecin) completed the group but they were never allowed much freedom in wet conditions.
Sagan’s rivals’ team-mates were unable to stop him rolling through at the intermediate sprint to collect maximum points, before the breakaway fell apart after the Col de l’Escrit.
With their advantage down to just a minute, Trentin attacked and – after a long pursuit – was joined by Hesjedal but with a very slender advantage.
They were swept up with 30km still to ride, however, and after a sustained, shared pace-setting from a number of sprint teams the attacking started again inside the final ten kilometres.
Kwiatkowski’s move looked dangerous but was shut down by BMC Racing, before stage six winner, Kwiatkowski’s team-mate Zdenek Stybar, tried his luck.
Lotto-Soudal led the chase however, and put Greipel in the perfect position to open up his long sprint, with both he and Degenkolb straining for every last sinew of energy.
Ultimately it was Greipel who triumphed, however, to seal a hat-trick of wins at this year’s race by less than a bike length.
He now trails Sagan by 44 points in the race for the green jersey, with a maximum of 50 available to the winner on the Champs-Elysees on stage 21.
With intermediate sprints to be contested before then too, Sagan has the advantage but it may well go to the wire.
Tour de France 2015: stage 15 – result
1) Andre Greipel (GER) – Lotto-Soudal – 3.56.35hrs
2) John Degenkolb (GER) – Giant-Alpecin – ST
3) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha
4) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Tinkoff-Saxo
5) Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) – MTN-Qhubeka
6) Ramunas Navardauskas (LTU) – Cannondale-Garmin
7) Christophe Laporte (FRA) – Cofidis
8) Michael Matthews (AUS) – Orica-GreenEDGE
9) Davide Cimolai (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
10) Florian Vachon (FRA) – Bretagne-Seche Environnement
1) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky – 59.58.54hrs
2) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +3.10
3) Tejay van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +3.32
4) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +4.02
5) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo +4.23
6) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +4.54
7) Robert Gesink (NED) – LottoNL-Jumbo +6.23
8) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana +8.17
9) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Soudal +8.23
10) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Trek Factory Racing +8.53