Groupama-FDJ’s Arnaud Demare said a now-deleted Twitter post from rival Andre Greipel inspired his stage 18 victory at the Tour de France.
Greipel, who pulled out of this year’s race after stage 12, set tongues wagging by suggesting that Demare was illegally helped by a team car on stage 17 as he struggled up a tough climb.
On Twitter, Greipel suggested that the Tour’s GPS tracking would find Demare out, only to retract his statement after an angry reaction from Groupama-FDJ, who offered to share data on Demare’s ride.
And the Frenchman went on to win stage 18 in a bunch finish as Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas retained his lead of one minute and 59 seconds over Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin.
With three stages remaining, the battle through the mountains on Friday [local time] looms as crucial in determining the race winner.
Defending champion and four-time Tour winner Chris Froome remains two minutes and 31 seconds behind Thomas on an uneventful day for the peloton on a mostly flat 171km stage from Trie-sur-Baise to Pau.
“I was hurt by his [Greipel’s] comments,” Demare said.
“I was affected by that. I sometimes regret that my performances are put in doubt.
“It’s true I’m not the best rider in the mountains but I’ve worked a lot to improve my climbing, so the best answer I could give to Andre Greipel was to win today.
“Had I done anything wrong, I would have been punished.
“In the stage to Bagneres-de-Luchon, I saw the team car of Bora, it stopped and followed me for 40km on the flats. I pushed the entire way.
“I knew I was losing time on the peloton … today was a nice reward for all the work that we’ve done.
“Some of the other sprinters are not here in the Tour now, but I’m still here and able to raise my hands in the air.”
Demare’s teammate, Jacopo Guarnieri, wanted to thank Greipel.
“For sure that gave us an extra boost, so thank you Andre,” he said.
“The first time I meet him it will be a chance to clarify.”
Eating humble pie, Lotto-Soudal’s Greipel took to Twitter to address the situation.
“My apology go [sic] out to @ArnaudDemare and @GroupamaFDJ,” he said.
Greipel added that his tweet was based on GPS time “which can be wrong, plus I got the incorrect times”.
He added: “I’m sorry. Lesson learned: don’t tweet about sth [something] you are not part off [sic].”
Demare held off the likes of Cofidis’ Christophe Laporte and UAE Team Emirates’ Alexander Kristoff in the dying stages of a stage the peloton had little to do with.
The battle for the yellow jersey
It seemed like there were bigger fish to try for the race’s top riders, who all had one eye on the battle through the mountains ahead of them.
Thomas is now expecting stage 19 to be full of attacks from his rivals.
“It’ll be a big test,” he said.
“It’s one for the team to control for most of the day. The last climb will mostly [be] down to the legs. It’ll be good to just keep doing what we’ve been doing.
“I think we are expecting the worst and hoping for the best.
“We are expecting a lot of attacks from the guys, especially on the Tourmalet, and certainly on the last climb.”
Thomas can now count on the support of Froome, his teammate who held pre-race favouritism.
“Hopefully we won’t have to use ‘Froomey’ and we will have strength in numbers and he’ll be able to follow as well,” he added.
“But having ‘Froomey’ at my disposal is phenomenal.”
The third-last stage will see riders race from Lourdes to Laruns over 200.5km.
Tour legend Mark Cavendish told the BBC it is “the last big showdown in the mountains for the climbers”.
And on that basis, it appears Thomas’ most significant test.
Stage 18 results
1. Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) 3 hrs 46 mins 40 secs
2. Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) same time
3. Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) same time
4. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) same time
5. Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) same time
6. Maximiliano Richeze (Quick-Step Floors) same time
7. John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) same time
8. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) same time
9. Taylor Phinney (Team EF Education First-Drapac P/B Cannondale) same time
10. Timothy Dupont (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) same time
General classification standings
1. Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) 74 hrs 21 mins 1 sec
2. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) + 1 min 59 secs
3. Chris Froome (Team Sky) + 2 mins 31 secs
4. Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) + 2 mins 47 secs
5. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) + 3 mins 30 secs
6. Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto NL-Jumbo) + 4 mins 19 secs
7. Mikel Landa (Movistar) + 4 mins 34 secs
8. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) + 5 mins 13 secs
9. Daniel Martin (UAE Team Emirates) + 6 mins 33 secs
10. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) + 9 mins 31 secs