SAINT-AMAND-MONTROND, France — Wily Tour de France riders who used the wind and worked together to trap their rivals turned a trek across the flats of central France into a thriller on Friday, as exciting and, for the most unfortunate, as decisive as any spectacular day in the mountains.
Yellow jersey holder Chris Froome lost a chunk of his race lead but not enough to gravely endanger the Briton heading toward what is shaping up to be an intriguing finale in the Alps. The team of Alberto Contador dealt the former two-time champion back into the game, putting him close enough to Froome to make the last week interesting. A rear-wheel failure at the worst time dropped Alejandro Valverde from second place to nowhere. And Mark Cavendish got a 25th stage win to lift the British sprinter to a third-place tie on the all-time list of cycling's premier race.
All this on a Stage 13 that, on paper, looked beforehand as though it might be a dud. But the riders are ensuring there's no such thing as a dull day at the 100th Tour. Much of the media buildup to this first Tour since the fall of Lance Armstrong focused on cycling's fight against doping. But from Stage 1 in Corsica two weeks ago, the sporting drama and the Tour's stunning visuals have come to the fore.
Much of Friday's mischief was cooked up by two teams — Belkin and Omega Pharma-QuickStep — that simply happened to share the same hotel the night before. With two-thirds of the stage left to race, a time when the pack often prefers to take things easy and let breakaway riders speed ahead for a while, Omega powered as a group to the front and rode like furies. They soon got additional support from Belkin. Their sudden acceleration and sustained high speed caught dozens of other riders off guard. The pack split into three groups. The breeze blowing across the long, undulating straights made it impossible for stragglers to catch up. Among them was Marcel Kittel, winner of three stages at this Tour.
Omega rider Jerome Pineau hinted it was no coincidence that his team and Belkin worked together.
"Look at the list of hotels and look who we were with yesterday," he said.
His teammate, Sylvain Chavanel, added: "You need some friends in the peloton."
Belkin rider Sep Vanmarcke said his Dutch team long ago identified this stage as a chance to spring a trap.
"We had planned this. The team leaders knew exactly where we would go," he said. "We knew there would be a lot of side wind there and that would be the best place to go."
When Valverde's rear wheel broke with more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) to ride, the Spaniard could only look on helpless as the pack sped on without him. With a new rear wheel, he and his Movistar teammates tried but failed to catch back up. He lost nearly nine minutes to Froome. Now out of podium contention entirely, in 16th place, Valverde suggested he might seek to exact revenge on teams — he named Belkin and Europcar — that didn't slow up for him, saying: "Maybe we can make the race tougher for those who didn't help me today and made it so I couldn't catch up."
Froome signaled his disapproval of the way Valverde was eliminated.
"I just hope that no team would do that to me if I had a mechanical problem," said the Team Sky leader.
On this very tactical 173-kilometer (107-mile) stage from Tours in the Loire valley, Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff team then pulled the same trick as Belkin and Omega. They hit the gas about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the crowded finish in the town of Saint-Amand-Montrond, again splintering the pack. This time, Froome was among those left behind.
Contador said his Italian teammate, Daniele Bennati, "rode a kilometer as if he were on a motorcycle. It was incredible, and that's what made the group break into a thousand pieces."
"All you could do was fasten your seat belt," said another of Contador's teammates, Nicolas Roche.
Never letting up, they got Contador to the finish 1 minute, 9 seconds ahead of Froome. Contador, the Tour champion in 2007 and '09 who was stripped of his title the following year for doping, was having a poor race. He was badly beaten by Froome in the Pyrenees and the first time trial. His team's efforts for him on Friday reinvigorated his challenge for the third week where Contador has proved strong in previous races. From fourth place, with a 3:54 deficit to Froome, he moved up to third, 2:45 off the lead. Belkin's smart and well executed plan also moved its rider, Bauke Mollema from the Netherlands, to second, now 2:28 from Froome, instead of the 3:37 deficit he started the stage with.
Still, Froome's time cushion remains significant and he is an excellent climber. The imposing Mont Ventoux this Sunday and the Alps next week offer him chances to do damage of his own.
"Having lost a minute there, that's always a bitter pill to swallow because we've worked really hard already to get the advantage we had. But saying that, we only lost a minute," he said. "I think there will be more time won and lost on a stage like Ventoux."
Cavendish just managed to stay with Contador's group when they accelerated away. He then beat Peter Sagan in the finishing sprint. Cavendish's 25th win moved him level with Frenchman Andre Leducq on the Tour's all-time list of stage winners. Now, only Bernard Hinault, with 28, and Eddy Merckx, with 34, have more than the Briton.
"An exceptional day," said race director Christian Prudhomme. "The Tour is far from over."