MENDE, France (Reuters) - British journeyman Stephen Cummings earned South African team MTN-Qhubeka a landmark victory on Mandela Day when he spoiled a French party to take a surprise win in the 14th stage of the Tour de France on Saturday.
Cummings beat Thibaut Pinot into second and Romain Bardet into third, powering past the two Frenchmen inside the final kilometers while both were marking each other thinking the race was between the two of them with French president Francois Hollande watching from the race director’s car.
Cummings, riding for the first African team on the Tour de France, even had time to raise his arms in celebration after staying within distance of the French rivals in the final climb, a 3-km ascent at an average gradient of 10.1 percent.
“We had special meeting this morning (because of Mandela Day) and we had special helmets on, it was a big motivation,” said Cummings.
“It was a long shot and luckily I played it well.”
Briton Chris Froome retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey after holding off his rivals and even gained further ground at the end of the 198.5-km ride from Rodez.
After Cummings had won from the day’s breakaway, Froome came under fire from his rivals for the general classification.
Colombian Nairo Quintana was the first to attack in the final climb and he was followed by Spaniard Alejandro Valverde and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.
But the 2013 champion never panicked and came back, eventually distancing them.
He finished one second ahead of Quintana, who climbed to second overall 3:10 behind, leapfrogging American Tejay van Garderen who is now third 3:32 off the pace after losing 40 seconds to Froome.
Spaniards Valverde and Alberto Contador are fourth and fifth overall, 4:02 and 4:23 off the pace after losing a few seconds in the finale.
On an another hot day on the Tour, a 20-man breakaway took shape in a nervous start as a massive pile-up sent Swiss FDJ rider onto the ground and to the hospital with a broken collarbone.
The group of fugitives featured several top names in Pinot and Bardet, third and sixth overall last year, as well as American Andrew Talansky, Briton Simon Yates and Colombian Rigoberto Uran.
They opened a 7:30-gap as Pinot’s FDJ team mates Matthieu Ladagnous and Jeremy Roy controlled the group until they ran out of gas.
Bardet led on the final climb but Pinot caught him just before the final flat part and it seemed both would contest a sprint for the win.
But Cummings was not far behind and, after a furious descent, caught them off guard and powered away to victory on the annual celebration day of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
“Thibaut and I made a tactical mistake,” said Bardet.
“We did not pay attention, Cummings was coming back and took five meters on us.”
Sunday’s 15th stage is a hilly ride between Mende and Valence.
Reporting by Julien Pretot,; Editing by Mitch Phillips