By Julien Pretot
PAU, France (Reuters) - Arnaud Demare silenced his critics by claiming a comfortable win in the bunch sprint of the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, the first victory this year for a French team in the race.
The Frenchman, who had been accused by fellow sprint specialist Andre Greipel of holding on to his team car in Wednesdayâ€™s mountain stage to avoid missing the time cut, was perfectly set up by Italian team mate Jacopo Guarnieri.
He beat compatriot Christophe Laporte and Norwayâ€™s Alexander Kristoff, who were second and third respectively as Briton Geraint Thomas retained the overall leaderâ€™s yellow jersey after 171km from Trie sur Baize.
â€œI did not fight for nothing in the mountains, I was thinking of a possible victory when I was suffering,â€ said Groupama-FDJ rider Demare.
On Wednesday, Greipel hinted on Twitter that Demare held on to his team car in the final climb up to the Col du Portet, which the Frenchman denied.
Reuters understands that Demare sent his power and time data to Greipel, who had quickly deleted his tweet.
â€œToday I thought of him,â€ said Demare of Greipel, who abandoned the race last week along with several other top sprinters, exhausted by extreme heat and gruelling efforts in the mountains.
Demare grinded his teeth though the mountain stages, narrowly avoiding missing the time cut on a couple of occasions.
â€œI had good legs and today all the hard work I did paid off,â€ he said.
â€œI stayed strong in my head. (Cheating) is not my philosophy. I gave everything, I worked super hard in the mountains ahead of the Tour de France. Several sprinters are home today and Iâ€™m still here. I deserved this victory, the whole team deserved it for their hard work.â€
Five men, including former Paris-Roubaix winners Niki Terpstra and Matthew Hayman, formed the dayâ€™s breakaway, but they were kept on a tight leash by the peloton and were reined in way before the line.
World champion Peter Sagan did not contest the final sprint after his crash on Wednesday left him in pain. â€œIt was hard but I thought it would actually be harder,â€ said the Slovak.
The only incident in an otherwise dull stage raced in searing hot temperatures came 105km from the finish when Colombian Nairo Quintana, fifth overall after his stage win on Wednesday, hit the asphalt when he and Briton Adam Yates were caught in a pile-up.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by David Holmes)