Frenchman Arnaud Demare silenced his critics with a superb sprint finish that handed him victory over compatriot Christophe Laporte in the 18th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday. Britain's Geraint Thomas, of Team Sky, finished close behind to tighten his grip on the yellow jersey three days before the 21st and final stage in Paris. The Welshman holds a 1min 59sec lead on Dutch rival Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) with four-time champion and teammate Chris Froome in third at 2:31 heading into Friday's 19th stage. "I think we're expecting the worst, hoping for the best," said Thomas, who is expecting attacks from his rivals on the final day in the mountains.
"I think guys will try to take any opportunity they can. It will be interesting, but we've been riding really well all race."
What was the penultimate chance for a diminished sprint field to snatch some glory was not going to be missed by the fast men of the peloton.
And a day after Slovakian sprint king Peter Sagan suffered injuries in a crash that almost ended his campaign, Demare was keen to capitalise.
Demare had his Groupama team work hard over the stage as they easily chased down an early five-man breakaway, and particularly in the final, technical kilometres of the stage to make sure he was primed for a final burst to the line.
But the Frenchman, who angered Laporte by veering from his line when he launched his final burst from inside 200 metres, was inspired by comments aimed at him by Germany's Andre Greipel.
Greipel, one of several sprinters who pulled out in the Alps, while others, like Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel, missed the time cut, accused Demare of holding on to a car to make it through the mountains on stage 16.
"The best answer I could give Andre Greipel was to win today," said Demare.
"Obviously what he said hurst me, and was also insulting. It's regrettable that people doubt my performances."
Demare also faced similar accusations on his way to victory in Milan-SanRemo in 2016.
"I know I'm not the best in the mountains, but I work hard to make sure I get through them," he added.
Bora rider Sagan, who failed to get in contention for the final sprint, simply wants to get over the last big climbs before focusing on the final stage on Sunday.
Already mathematically assured of his sixth green jersey for the points competition, the Slovakian is one of the favourites for the final stage on the Champs Elysees.
"I can't complain, I could be worse," said Sagan.
"After what happened yesterday with the crash, I was in a lot of pain today.
"I think tomorrow will be much harder, but I consider myself lucky that, after such a crash, I'm still in the race and not sitting at home.
"But it was my own mistake yesterday. There was no motorbike in front of me. I flew into the forest, like a bird."
Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Briton Adam Yates were among several riders caught up in a crash midway through the race, although both got back on their bikes to finish the stage.
The 19th stage is the final day in the high mountains. Over 200.5km, the peloton will notably tackle the Col d'Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque before a 20km descent to Laruns.