Pierrick Fedrigo left a rotten season behind him on Monday when he won the 15th stage of the Tour de France in Pau, the site of his last major victory two years ago.
The Frenchman outwitted his breakaway companions to ride the last six kilometres with American Christian Vande Velde, whom he easily outsprinted in the final stretch.
Fellow Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, winner of the 10th stage, finished third in the short 158.5-km ride from Samatan, in which the peloton anticipated Tuesday’s rest day by taking it leisurely in the finale after a nervous start.
Briton Bradley Wiggins retained his overall leader’s yellow jersey ahead of compatriot Chris Froome and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali.
For Fedrigo, the victory came as a huge relief after he missed most of the 2011 season with Lyme disease.
“The last time I won was here. I suffered much more last year by not riding the Tour than by riding it this year,” said the 33-year-old Frenchman, winner of three stages in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
“The first was important because it was the first. The second was special because it was in Tarbes, my hometown. The third, two years ago, was super special because it was the biggest Pyrenees stage, with all the mythical climbs,” he added.
It was Fedrigo’s FDJ team’s second victory on this Tour after Thibaut Pinot’s in the eighth stage in Porrentruy.
The decisive break of the day took shape after 62 km and involved six experienced riders, four of whom – Fedrigo, Voeckler, their compatriot Samuel Dumoulin and Dane Nikki Sorensen – had won Tour stages in the past.
The peloton had chased all the previous attempts with Wiggins’s team Sky working for world champion Mark Cavendish and Belgian outfit Lotto Belisol for Germany’s Andre Greipel, who celebrated his 30th birthday and was hoping for a fourth stage win on this Tour.
But when the six went, the bunch reached a sector of road that had a little bit of oil spilled on the tarmac and decided not to take any risks following the chaos on the previous stage caused by tacks thrown on the course.
“It was a hard stage all the same because it’s very hot and hilly in this region. It’s not a decision we made in the bus, it’s a decision we made on the road,” said Wiggins.
Once the six had received the go-ahead, their lead increased steadily and was still 11:50 on the finish line.
Fedrigo timed his move to perfection with five kilometres to go and was far too fast for Vande Velde in the finale.
Greipel had to be content with winning the bunch sprint for seventh place.
The stage was hard enough for four riders to be forced out, including French time trial champion Sylvain Chavanel, who gave up sick.
Tuesday’s rest day will be a chance for the 156 riders left in the bunch to check out the Pyrenees climbs on the menu for Wednesday and Thursday.