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Demare silences critics as Thomas stays in yellow

By Reuters - Jul 26,2018 - Last updated at Jul 26,2018

Groupama-FDJ rider Arnaud Demare of France wins the 171 km stage 18 from Trie-sur-Baise to Pau stage at the Tour de France on Thursday (Reuters photo by Benoit Tessier)

PAU, France — Arnaud Demare silenced his critics by claiming a comfortable win in the bunch sprint of the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, the first victory this year for a French team in the race.

The Frenchman, who had been accused by fellow sprint specialist Andre Greipel of holding on to his team car in Wednesday's mountain stage to avoid missing the time cut, was perfectly set up by Italian teammate Jacopo Guarnieri.

He beat compatriot Christophe Laporte and Norway's Alexander Kristoff, who were second and third respectively as Briton Geraint Thomas retained the overall leader's yellow jersey after 171km from Trie sur Baize.

"I did not fight for nothing in the mountains, I was thinking of a possible victory when I was suffering," said Groupama-FDJ rider Demare.

On Wednesday, Greipel hinted on Twitter that Demare held on to his team car in the final climb up to the Col du Portet, which the Frenchman denied.

Reuters understands that Demare sent his power and time data to Greipel, who had quickly deleted his Tweet.

"Today I thought of him," said Demare of Greipel, who abandoned the race last week along with several other top sprinters, exhausted by extreme heat and gruelling efforts in the mountains.

Demare grinded his teeth though the mountain stages, narrowly avoiding missing the time cut on a couple of occasions.

"I had good legs and today all the hard work I did paid off," he said.

"I stayed strong in my head. [Cheating] is not my philosophy. I gave everything, I worked super hard in the mountains ahead of the Tour de France. Several sprinters are home today and I'm still here. I deserved this victory, the whole team deserved it for their hard work."

Five men, including former Paris-Roubaix winners Niki Terpstra and Matthew Hayman, formed the day's breakaway, but they were kept on a tight leash by the peloton and were reined in way before the line.

World champion Peter Sagan did not contest the final sprint after his crash on Wednesday left him in pain. "It was hard but I thought it would actually be harder," said the Slovak.

The only incident in an otherwise dull stage raced in searing hot temperatures came 105km from the finish when Colombian Nairo Quintana, fifth overall after his stage win on Wednesday, hit the asphalt when he and Briton Adam Yates were caught in a pile-up.

Thomas had until Wednesday insisted Chris Froome was Team Sky's leader, yet, that changed when the Tour de France's yellow jersey holder emerged as the British outfit's best, if not only, chance of winning the race.

Froome, 2:31 off the pace with three competitive stages left, said after Wednesday he would now "look after" Thomas, effectively conceding that his own hopes of success had been dashed.

The Welshman, who had already claimed two stage wins in the Alps, had once again looked the strongest of the main contenders.

He took third place behind Colombian Nairo Quintana and Ireland's Dan Martin, but gained time over Froome, Dumoulin and fourth-placed Primoz Roglic.

That prompted a change of tune from Thomas. Asked who was the Team Sky leader, he replied: "I'm in a good position now.

"I'm not going to change my mental approach and take it day by day, keep doing the small things right."

Thomas, who has never previously been in a position to win a grand tour, is keeping his feet on the ground.

"As soon as you get carried away, it's when it goes downhill," the two-time Olympic track champion said.

Thomas praised the work of his teammates after they controlled the pace of the race all day, preventing most of their rivals from attacking as they set a high tempo in front of the main pack.

Froome's struggles, however, gave him the confidence to power on.

"Froomey said with five or four kilometres to go that he was not feeling super. It gave me confidence, because if Froomey is suffering then everyone is suffering and I was feeling good," said the 32-year-old Welshman.

With that in mind, Thomas even pushed for a four-second time bonus allocated to the rider taking third place in the stage.

"It's the first time I've ridden for GC [general classification]. I'm feeling good but I'm not going to get carried away. No complacency."

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