Australia’s Caleb Ewan opened his Tour de France account with a fast finish in Stage 11 at Toulouse to deny Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen and Italian Elia Viviani.
Ewan, making his belated Tour debut for Lotto Soudal, proved the fastest of the sprinters at the conclusion of the 167km stage from Albi, edging Jumbo-Visma’s Groenewegen in a photo finish.
In the absence of lead-out man Jasper De Buyst, who rode off the road into a ditch inside the final 10km of the race, Ewan followed the right wheel and launched from Groenewegen’s wake with the finish line gaping.
Caleb Ewan wins by a whisker to complete Grand Tour grand slam
A previous stage winner in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, 25-year-old Ewan became the first Australian to win a Tour stage on his debut and has joined the elite club of 19 current riders who have taken victories in each of cycling’s three Grand Tours.
Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Viviani was a distant third ahead of the green jersey of Slovakia’s Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) while Belgian Jens Debusschere (Katusha-Alpecin) completed the top five.
There were no major changes in the general classification as Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) retained the yellow jersey by 1’12” over defending champion Geraint Thomas ahead of the first day in the Pyrenees.
Colombia’s Egan Bernal, the Welshman’s teammate and co-leader at Ineos, is third a further four seconds back, while France’s Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) moved back into the top 10 at the expense of Italy’s Giulio Ciccone of Trek-Segafredo after the former yellow jersey was caught up in a crash with 30km remaining.
Highlights: Ewan's photo-finish delight, Quintana and Porte fight back after crash
Colombia’s Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Australia’s Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) were also held up by the incident, which forced Dutchman Niki Terpstra (Total-Direct Energie) out of the race, although both riders were able to fight back into the pack before the finish.
Belgian Aime De Gendt (Wanty-Gobert) was the last man standing of a four-man break and was caught inside the final 5km as Jumbo-Visma swarmed to the front to set up their man Groenewegen.
'No other race I've dreamt of winning!' - Ewan revels in maiden stage victory
But Ewan had different ideas, the pocket-rocket from Sydney turning his four previous podium finishes into the win that had eluded him – and the final piece in the jigsaw.
"To be honest I can't believe it," an ecstatic Ewan said.
I've been close in the last four sprints I've done, and my team never lost faith in me. I never lost faith in my sprint. I knew if everything came together then I can be the fastest on the day, and I think today I showed that.
#TheBreakaway - Ewan vs Cav, trouble at Team Sunweb, and a look ahead to the Pyrenees
Stage 11: Albi to Toulouse – how it happened
A break of four riders zipped clear from the outset in a move spearheaded by local rider Lilian Calmejane of Total-Direct Energie.
The Frenchman, who hails from Albi, told reporters in the start town that he was planning to attack alongside compatriot Anthony Perez, who comes from the finish town of Toulouse. And the duo kept good to their word, with Perez joined by Cofidis teammate Stephane Rossetto while the lesser known Belgian De Gendt – no relation to Thomas, the Stage 8 winner in Saint-Etienne – completed the quartet.
Over the gently rolling roads of the Tarn and in hot temperatures eased by a heavy breeze, the leaders established a maximum lead of three and a half minutes as the teams of the main sprinters worked hard to keep them on a tight leash.
It was a clean-sweep of minor gongs for Perez, who was first over the summit of both lower-category climbs – the Cote de Tonnac and the Cote de Castelnau-de-Montmiral – before making it a hattrick by pipping De Gendt in the intermediate sprint at Gaillac.
When the peloton passed through the sprint it was Italian Elia Viviani who beat Slovakia’s Peter Sagan to close the gap ever so slightly in the battle for the green jersey.
At this point, with around 80km remaining, the gap dropped under the two-minute mark for the four leaders, with the Jumbo-Visma, Lotto Soudal and Deceuninck-QuickStep teams of Groenewegen, Ewan and Viviani leading the chase.
Team Ineos soon came to the front to keep their leading duo of Thomas and Bernal out of trouble in an increasingly nervous peloton. And then, with the gap down to one minute with 30km remaining, the inevitable happened: a touch of wheels in the pack caused a raft of riders to go down and held up many more in the melee.
Worst off was Dutchman Terpstra, who was forced out of the race, and Italian youngster Ciccone, the former yellow jersey, who soon found himself off the back of a chase group that included some big-name riders, including his Trek-Segafredo teammate Porte and Colombia’s Quintana (Movistar).
Quintana and Porte rejoined the pack with Canada’s Michael Woods (EF Education First) with 20km remaining but Ciccone – despite not betraying any visible injuries – languished alongside compatriot Giacomo Nizzolo (Dimension Data) and Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First) more than five minutes in arrears.
Perez was the first of the escapees to falter following a sharp acceleration by De Gendt with 10km remaining. Indignant at the Belgian’s betrayal, Perez’s teammate Rossetto – the rider with the most breakaway kilometres in his legs at the half-way stage of this year’s race – gesticulated wildly in anger.
Rossetto and Calmejane were swept up by the pack soon after with De Gendt still holding a 30-second gap on his adversaries. But as soon as Jumbo-Visma started to up the tempo on the front on an uphill rise into Toulouse, the lone leader was reeled in.
With four men on the front, Jumbo signalled their intent. But the likes of Bora, Sunweb, UAE and even Katusha and Dimension Data soon showed their cards and tried to muscle into the mix.
Deceuninck-QuickStep tried to form their train for Viviani, but it was too late. Teed up by Stage 10 winner Wout Van Aert, Groenewegen launched with 250m remaining but Ewan came off the Dutchman’s wheel and just did enough to take his rival by a handful of centimetres.
"There's no other race I've dreamt of winning since I was a young kid," Ewan said. “I can't believe it. The Tour de France is something so distant from Australia, something we only watched on TV. I can't believe I'm even here, and to win a stage is a real dream come true for me."
Ewan’s quest for victory was almost derailed by a bizarre incident with 10km remaining which saw his teammate De Buyst nudged off the road by another rider and into a grassy ditch, ruling the Belgian out of his pilot duties at the finish.
Riding in De Buyst’s wheel, Ewan managed to avoid crashing and rejoined the peloton before linking up with teammate Roger Kluge on the fast run-in.
"Roger came back for me, and he basically took me from the back of the bunch to Groenewegen's wheel in the last few kilometres. Once I had a bit of time to recover, luckily I had the legs to be able to win."
Italy’s Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida), Belgium Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates), Dutchman Cees Bol – on Sunweb sprint duties for the out-of-sorts Michael Matthews – and Norway’s Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) all made it into the top 10.
There was also an unlikely tenth place for Arkea-Samsic’s whippet-thin climber Warren Barguil, whose strong finish would have been a wake-up call to teammate Andre Greipel, the veteran German sprinter, who has yet to crack any top 10 so far.
Coming up: Stage 12 – Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre
Thursday’s first day in the Pyrenees may not include a summit finish but the 209.5km ride concludes with back-to-back ascents of the Col de Peyresourde and the Hourquette d’Ancizan ahead of a fast downhill finish. It’s a day where the yellow jersey contenders will not be able to hide – and a first major test for Alaphilippe as he bids to hold Ineos’ two star riders at bay.