Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Leopard) hung on by the skin of his teeth on Saturday to win stage 2 and take the yellow jersey in the 2013 Tour de France.
Bakelants accelerated out of a crumbling, last-ditch break to deny the sprinters a go at the end of the hilly, 156km leg from Bastia to Ajaccio, which featured four rated climbs.
The bunch chased desperately, and it seemed Bakelants would be caught before the line, but he held on to take the victory by a single second over Peter Sagan (Cannondale) with Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) third.
The victory — Bakelants’ first as a professional — gave him the overall lead by one second over David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) with Julien Simon (Sojansun) third in the same time.
“I’ve never won a race in the professional ranks,” Bakelants said. “Today we were a rather big bunch, and I can’t win in a bunch sprint. I started pushing my 11, and maybe it didn’t look nice, but I was fast. I made it. I won. I had to wait five years, but what a victory.”
The break du jour
Getting the ball rolling breakwise were Lars Boom (Belkin), Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Veilleux (Europcar) and Biel Kadri (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Kadri and Veilleuz got away from the other two on the second rated climb of the day, with 75km remaining.
And then Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) launched out of the bunch, quickly zipping past Boom and Perez Moreno, running down the two leaders, and delighting his considerable fan base, which was lining the road.
The bunch retrieved Boom and Perez Moreno. Ahead, Kadri shed Veilleuz, while behind, the peloton retrieved Voeckler.
Kadri was taken back, too, after a mechanical, but refused to surrender and took off once again. And then Europcar sent Pierre Rolland on the attack. With 60km remaining he had a 20-second advantage over Kadri and Brice Feillu (Sojasun) and a stretch of downhill to work with.
The yellow jersey was going downhill too — Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) was more than five minutes down and suffering.
Rolland’s time off the front was short — he, too, was pulled back, and with 40km remaining BMC Racing, Sky and Cannondale were leading the reduced peloton toward the finale in Ajaccio.
It seemed the final climb would separate the sheep from the goats — the Côte du Salario, a 1km category-3 ascent averaging 8.9 percent, a dozen or so kilometers from the line.
As the road tipped upward Cyril Gauthier (Europcar) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) took off. Behind, Rolland crashed, quickly snatching a bike from a teammate and getting back in the hunt.
Gauther left Flecha behind as Chris Froome (Sky) laid down a surprising counterattack. The Sky captain didn’t stay away, but Gauthier did — for a while, anyway.
On the final run to the finish, as the sprinters’ teams began organizing themselves, a late break formed up, containing Bakelants, Jakob Fuglsang, Gorka Izagirre Insausti (Euskaltel), Manuele Mori (Lampre-Merida), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma) and Flecha.
Its gap was never more than a handful of seconds, and it appeared doomed to be swallowed up in a bunch sprint, until Bakelants shifted into that 11-tooth cog.
“Every time I went to the front, I felt faster than the five other guys. Maybe I was just stronger than them,” he said. “I said, are we going to ride and be the first riders, or wait for the bunch to come back and see another win by Sagan? We kept a gap. I went as fast as I could. When I saw I had 100m, I knew I was going to win a stage of the Tour de France!”
Overnight race leader Kittel, who crossed in 169th place with a bunch more than 17 minutes down, was sanguine about losing his yellow jersey on Sunday.
“I knew it would be a big fight on the climb. It’s a pity to lose yellow, but it was something that I was expecting. I am a sprinter. We still have green, so that’s something to celebrate now.
“The yellow jersey helped on the climbs. I had goose-bumps on the climbs. People were yelling my name. The experience I had today was something I will never forget.”
Kittel will wear the green jersey in Monday’s stage, a 145km leg from Ajaccio to Calvi that concludes the Corsican leg of the 2013 Tour.
Other jersey holders include Rolland (mountains) and Kwiatkowski (best young rider). RadioShack leads the team competition.
• The new yellow jersey nearly missed out on the Tour because of a succession of injuries, including a knee problem that required surgery.
• A former winner of the Tour de l’Avenir, Bakelants also becomes the first Belgian to win a stage in the Tour since Jelle Vanendert in 2011.
Editor’s note: Agence France Presse contributed to this report. Stay tuned for more from the Tour de France.