Arnaud Demare

Arnaud Demare, last place in the Pyrenees, wins Tour de France stage

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France’s Arnaud Demare won the Tour de France’s flat 18th stage on Thursday, after finishing last on Tuesday and next to last on Wednesday in mountain stages.

Demare edged countryman Christophe Laporte and Norwegians Alexander Kristoff and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

Brit Geraint Thomas retained his 1-minute, 59-second lead over the Netherland’s Tom Dumoulin in the overall standings. The top 10 standings remained the same.

Demare said he was motivated by an accusation on social media from Andre Greipel, a top German sprinter, who alleged that Demare held on to his team car on the way up the grueling Col du Portet in Stage 17.

Demare finished Wednesday’s stage second to last but managed to avoid the time cut as thousands of French spectators cheered him on.

Greipel, who also quit in Stage 12, later apologized on Twitter, saying he had relied on “incorrect” information.

“It hurt me enormously,” Demare said. “It’s a shame that people cast doubts over my performance and my hard work. … I thought a lot about (Greipel) today. It’s not in my mindset or my philosophy to (cheat). I worked hard in the mountains before the Tour and, as a result, I made it through mountain stages when most of the sprinters did not.”

Demare benefited from the mountains depleting the sprint field the last two weeks. Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen, who both won two stages on this Tour, along with Andre Greipel all abandoned the race last week, while 30-stage winner Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel failed to make a time cut in the Alps.

Demare finished 147th on Tuesday and 145th on Wednesday, losing more than an hour to Thomas and the race leaders, before grabbing his second career Tour stage win Thursday.

Thomas must navigate one more mountain stage Friday and a 19-mile time trial Saturday to ride into Paris on the final day Sunday in the yellow jersey.

Coverage continues Friday on NBC Sports Gold at 5:50 a.m. ET and NBCSN at 7 a.m.

“We’re expecting the worst, hoping for the best. … It’s the last mountain stage and I think guys will try to take every opportunity they can,” Thomas said. “But we’ve been riding real well the whole race, so hopefully we can keep that going for one more day.”

Perhaps a bigger worry for Thomas and third-place teammate Chris Froome concerns the unruly fans who have consistently affected this Tour by spitting at riders — or even reaching out to grab them.

One fan who reached over the barriers nearly took Thomas down on Wednesday

“I thought it was maybe an accident, just maybe an overly exuberant fan,” Thomas said. “But when I got back to the hotel and was showed the pictures it was obviously something else. It’s not nice. It’s not what you want.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Marcel Kittel wins Tour de France Stage 6, tightens sprint standings (video)

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German Marcel Kittel won a bunched sprint finish for the second time in the first six stages of the Tour de France on Thursday.

Kittel edged France’s Arnaud Demare and German Andre Greipel as all crossed in 5 hours, 5 minutes, 34 seconds in Troyes. It’s Kittel’s 11th career Tour stage win.

There were no significant changes in the overall standings. Chris Froome, a three-time Tour champ, still leads by 12 seconds over teammate Geraint Thomas.

Demare, the Stage 4 winner, kept his lead over Kittel in the green-jersey standings, thanks in part to points from an intermediate sprint earlier in Thursday’s stage.

Kittel cut Demare’s standings lead from 40 to 27 points.

Nobody left in the field has captured a sprint classification title with five-time winner Peter Sagan thrown out of the Tour for making contact with 2011 winner Mark Cavendish on Tuesday. Cavendish crashed and broke a shoulder blade, forcing his abandon from the Tour.

An appeal by Sagan’s team to the Court of Arbitration for Sport was rejected Thursday.

TOUR: Results/Standings | Highlights | Broadcast Schedule

Overall Standings
1. Chris Froome (GBR) — 23:44:33
2. Geraint Thomas (GBR) — +:12
3. Fabio Aru (ITA) — +:14
4. Dan Martin (IRL) — +:25
5. Richie Porte (AUS) — +:39
7. Romain Bardet (FRA) — +:47
8. Alberto Contador (ESP) — +:52
9. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +:54

Friday’s Stage 7 is a flat, 134-mile trip from Troyes to Nuits-Saint-Georges in eastern France. It should feature another bunched sprint to the finish ahead of a summit finish Saturday.

NBC Sports Gold coverage starts at 6 a.m. ET. NBCSN’s coverage starts at 7:30 a.m.

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Marcel Kittel

Mark Cavendish, yellow jersey crash at Tour de France (video)

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Mark Cavendish crashed hard in the final straightaway sprint after colliding with Peter Sagan at the Tour de France on Tuesday.

The 30-time Tour stage winner said he reinjured his right shoulder but did not have specifics.

“I’m not a doctor, but the feelings, I’m not optimistic,” Cavendish said, his right arm wrapped in a sling.

Arnaud Demare won the stage after multiple crashes in the last mile, becoming the first Frenchman to win a bunch sprint since 2006.

Shortly before that, Tour leader Geraint Thomas hit the pavement due to riders crashing ahead of him but appeared not to suffer serious injury. He retained the yellow jersey.

Then, on the final straightaway, Cavendish was squeezed into a barrier on the right side after colliding with Peter Sagan‘s right arm.

Cavendish spent minutes on the ground but eventually got back on his bike and rolled across the finish line favoring his right arm. The right side of his jersey was ripped apart, and Cavendish’s right hand was bandaged.

Sagan found Cavendish outside Cavendish’s Dimension Data team bus, and the two exchanged calm words.

“I get [along] with Peter,” Cavendish repeated. “If he came across it’s one thing, but his elbow, I’m not a fan. … I’d like to know about the elbow.”

Sagan said he didn’t have time to move left as Cavendish came up his right. The five-time Tour green sprinters’ jersey winner said he apologized.

“Yeah, for sure, because it’s not nice to crash like that,” Sagan said.

TOUR: Results/Standings | Highlights | Broadcast Schedule

Cavendish is riding this year’s Tour after being diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus in April. He has 30 career Tour stage wins, four shy of Eddy Merckx‘s record.

Cannondale–Drapac’s Nate Brown, who on Monday took the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey from countryman Taylor Phinney, retained that jersey Tuesday. He’s the first American to do so in Tour history.

Wednesday’s Stage 5 is 100 miles, but the key is the final eight kilometers. The general classification contenders will be put on notice on the short, steep ascent to the La Planche des Belles Filles. This is where Chris Froome won his first Tour stage in 2012.

NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN’s live coverage starts at 7 a.m. ET.

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Stage 4
1. Arnaud Demare (FRA) — 4:53:54
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — +:00
3. Alexander Kristoff (NOR) — +:00
4. Andre Greipel (GER) — +:00
5. Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) — +:00

General Classification
1. Geraint Thomas (GBR) — 14:54:25
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — +:07
3. Chris Froome (GBR) — +:12
4. Michael Matthews (AUS) — +:12
5. Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) — +:16