Greg Van Avermaet has won his first stage on the Tour de France as Peter Sagan finished second for the fourth time this year.

What surprised Froome was how fast the approach to Friday’s final climb got as both the sprinters and punchers’ teams jostled for position with those of the overall favourites.

The course profile, with one intermediate sprint and three small category climbs with a punchy uphill finish suited to a certain kind of finisher, was one most experts earmarked for the points classification leader, Sagan.

Froome, who extended his overall lead to three minutes 10 seconds, said the attack happened early in the race.

British journeyman Stephen Cummings earned South African team MTN-Qhubeka a landmark victory on Mandela Day when he spoiled a French party to take a surprise win in the 14th stage of the Tour de France on Saturday.

But a day after claiming that he expects Thomas to be leading a team at a Grand Tour before long, Froome’s reluctance to comment on Porte’s chances perhaps spoke volumes.

“It was really close”, Van Avermaet said of his victory.

“It was really hard, I actually didn’t know who was in my wheel”.

Fans lined the roads in southwest France for the “transitional stage” to the Tour’s popular stop in Mende, and Froome applauded the majority of them who turned out to watch the bike race.

He said, “I’ve never taken any shortcuts and it’s just a disgrace that they are saying the same things about Chris Froome”.

Rodriguez was part of a group of 22 riders – none of them podium contenders – that broke away shortly after the start in Lannemezan, a Pyrenees town of 6,500 inhabitants, whose signature dishes include black Bigorre pork and an almond cake named after bandits.

Chris Froome was faultless.

The crash which saw Jean Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) tumble to the Tarmac, tear his Lycra shorts and expose more than was appropriate before the watershed was a reminder to Froome of the daily perils in the bunch.

“He set up the stage win I got in (La Pierre) Saint Martin and I definitely see him playing a massive role in the Alps”.

The 178-kilometer (111-mile) west-to-east route winds through plains and hills on the fringes of the Massif Central region, with a swing through the breathtaking Tarn gorges.

Riding past plantations of yellow sunflowers and golden fields of harvested wheat, the riders worked on staying hydrated as temperatures soared into the mid-90s Fahrenheit.