SAINT-AMAND-MONTROND, France — Mark Cavendish won the 13th stage of the Tour de France in a sprint finish Friday and Chris Froome lost a sizeable chunk of his overall lead after being caught by Alberto Contador.
Cavendish moved ahead with about 100 meters to go and rival Peter Sagan, the defending champion and current leader in the sprinters' green jersey contest, was unable to stay with him.
It was the British sprinter's second stage win of the Tour and 25th overall — moving him into third place with Frenchman Andre Leducq on the all-time list of Tour stage winners.
"My team did an incredible job today," Cavendish said. "We're going to have some Champagne tonight."
His relief was clear to see as he rushed into the arms of teammate Sylvain Chavanel after the stage. On Thursday his teammates had put him into a great position to attack but he was beaten to the line by Marcel Kittel of Germany.
"Yesterday they gave everything and I let them down," Cavendish said. "The Tour de France is the most incredible race in the world. It means so much to me. When I think about it, it makes me want to cry."
Flat stages are normally relatively free of incident, but the 173-kilometer (107.5-mile) trek from Tours, which is surrounded by the Loire river, to Saint-Amand-Montrond in central France was exciting and showed that even Froome's formidable Sky team can be vulnerable.
"There's no such thing as a calm stage on the Tour de France," Froome said.
With about a third of the stage gone, the main pack was split into three and Alejandro Valverde dropped way out of overall contention after stopping to repair a puncture. He dropped out of the top 10 after losing a huge amount of time.
Valverde was second overnight but that spot was overtaken by Dutchman Bauke Mollema, while the two-time former champion Contador improved to third. They both gained 1 minute, 9 seconds on Froome.
That means Mollema is 2:28 behind and Contador is 2:45 back.
"It doesn't surprise me what happened today. Just a reminder that I need to stay awake at all times in this race," Froome said.
Cavendish now has only Frenchman Bernard Hinault — 28 wins — and record holder Eddy Merckx of Belgium — 34 — ahead of him.
Elsewhere, there was a victory of sorts for Contador — who had been battered by Froome in the Pyrenees mountains and then lost more time to him in the time trial.
That should give Contador a huge lift with a tough mountain stage looming on Sunday and then three grueling Alpine stages to follow after that. Given that Froome finished all alone and without any Sky teammates on a flat stage, it suggests he could be in serious trouble in the mountains if he's isolated by an attack from Contador.
The Sky team is down to seven riders after Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen had to pull out after fracturing his right shoulder in a crash involving about 20 riders near the end of Thursday's stage. Of the remaining seven, Geraint Thomas is riding with a fractured pelvis.
With about 60 kilometers of the stage gone, the peloton split in three after an attack from Cavendish's Omega Pharma QuickStep team, with Tony Martin leading the charge. Froome made sure he stayed with the small group forming at the front as it pulled away from the two groups behind.
Omega's attack was to try and distance German sprinter Marcel Kittel — who was won three sprint stages so far — and it worked to perfection.
"They rode themselves into the ground," Cavendish said. "It wasn't really a master plan, we just felt the wind wasn't in the right position so we decided to ride harder, to make the peloton more tired and finally it broke."
With so many riders pedaling hard behind them, there was no way the early six-man breakaway would last and they were swallowed up with about 100 kilometers (roughly 60 miles) left. No breakaway has gone all the way on this year's Tour, mainly because the peloton has ridden so aggressively, which in turn made the race more nervy and doubtless contributed to several big crashes.
Then, bad luck struck Valverde.
The Spaniard had to leave the yellow jersey group to mend his bike. This meant that his Movistar teammates also had to drop off the main group to go back and help him with nearly 80 kilometers (50 miles) of grueling riding ahead.
Flanked by five teammates, Valverde rode furiously but it was a futile effort.
With Valverde vulnerable, the Belkin team showed no mercy, profiting from his delay to move to the front of the yellow jersey group, keen to gain as much time as possible in order to push Mollema and countryman Laurens Ten Dam, who is now fifth, up the overall standings.
Things like that tend to go full circle in cycling, and Belkin can no longer expect any help from Movistar for the rest of the race.
Belkin pushed so hard at the front that Richie Porte, Froome's strongest teammate at Sky, was dropped.
By the end, Froome was all alone and his team has some serious thinking to do with the mountains approaching.