Alexander Kristoff of Katusha has won Stage 15 of the Tour de France in Nîmes this afternoon, but on wet roads and with a series of roundabouts in the closing kilometres, the peloton left it very late to catch the day's two escapees.
Garmin-Sharp's Jack Bauer had been out in front with Swiss champion Martin Elmiger all day, and the pair had an advantage of around a quarter of a minute as they entered the final kilometre.
Bauer was poised to take what would have been the biggest win of his career, but was caught metres from the line. Astana's Vincenzo Nibali retains the a 4 minute 37 second lead overall, with the Pyrenees looming after tomorrow's rest day.
Elmiger's team mate Heinrich Haussler finished second, with points classification leader Peter Sagan of Cannondale Pro Cycling third.
The 222 kilometre stage from Tallard represented perhaps the final chance for a sprinter to take victory ahead of the conclusion of the race on the Champs-Elysées in Paris a week today, but the weather very nearly put paid that.
There may have been no categorised climbs today, but the stage nevertheless had an undulating profile as it headed away from the Alpine foothills and across the Rhône towards its finish outside the Roman amphitheatre in Nîmes.
Bauer, who just three years ago was riding in events such as the Tour Series for Endura Racing, got away from the peloton at kilometre zero with Elmiger, second overall to Sir Bradley Wiggins in last year’s Tour of Britain.
The pair worked together well, and with 60 kilometres remaining had an advantage of six minutes while behind them, the peloton was split by strong crosswinds, forcing a number of riders to have to fight back on.
With 23 kilometres left, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Michal Kwiatkowski tried to bridge across to the leaders, but with Lotto-Belisol forcing the pace at the front of the peloton, he was reeled back in.
The front pair had an advantage of 45 seconds entering the final 7.5 kilometres, and more than half a minute as they passed beneath the 5 kilometres to go banner, as roundabouts plus surface water from an earlier thunderstorm made the pursuit difficult.
Inside the closing kilometre, it looked as though Bauer, getting little help from Elmiger by now, might prevail, but with the New Zealander repeatedly looking over his shoulder he was caught tantalisingly close to the line as Kristoff took his second stage win of this year’s race.
Jack Bauer, caught with the line in sight
It's just bitter, bitter disappointment. It's a childhood dream to win a stage of the Tour and for a domestique, like myself, I'm normally working for others. This was my first chance to be up the road and with the chance in the wind and the weather, me and Martin realised we had a chance for the win.
I faked to be tired but felt I had more punch left. I left it until 400 metres to go. I thought I had it but then I realised in the last 50 metres that I had nothing.
A break is not just a group of people who are stronger than the other 180 riders and they just ride away. It's a shuffle at the start of the stage, it's a positioning thing, it's a motivational thing after two hard days. A lot of people wanted a sprint finish but for us it was important. After losing Talansky and not really having many stages in the last week that suit, today was a day we had to gamble that a break would stay away. It was so close but so far.
Stage winner, Alexander Kristoff
After I won [Stage 12] the other day, Thor Hushovd sent me a text message saying ‘nine to go' [Hushovd has won ten stages of the Tour de France in total], so now it's eight to go! It's a lot and maybe too much.
I didn't expect to win two stages in the same Grand Tour so I can't see any further. It's still hard to compare stage wins at the Tour and Milan-San Remo but it would be great to win in Paris as well. Normally I'm not the fastest sprinter on the flat against André Greipel and Marcel Kittel but I'm lighter than them.
Possibly that turned to my advantage today. I didn't see them being tired during the stage but the fact that I beat them make me think that they're tired after climbing in the Alps. I also didn't feel super but I had to try anyway. [Team-mate] Luca [Paolini] did a great job, also Gatis [Smukulis] in pulling the peloton.
Maybe with [Alexander] Porsev, had he still been at the Tour, it would have been easier but today, it depended more or less on the legs in the finale. Luckily, I had the best ones. Omega Pharma-Quick Step was very active in the finale. They were attacking a lot. It broke up the trains a bit.
That also turned to my advantage but that was close at the end. I didn't have the situation under control. I was just happy to see the two breakaway riders caught. They made a huge effort. I feel sorry for them. What they did was impressive.
Shall I win in Paris too, it would make it a perfect Tour. I've been performing all year long but my form hasn't been stable really. My wins in Oman and in Frankfurt after my post-classics break were due to a bit of luck. I've had good classics and now the Tour de France is going beyond expectations for me. I hope it'll continue like that.
We'll draw conclusions at the end of the season and I'll build the rest of my career on these successes. My coach says I'll keep improving. I'm not sure how much I can still improve. I'm only 27 so I have a few good years ahead. I'll work hard to get a bit better but don't expect me to win the Tour de France overall.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.