Slovenian Matej Mohoric won a photo finish to take stage 19 of the Tour de France on Friday and deny Dane Kasper Asgreen back-to-back stage wins.
The Bahrain Victorious rider said he almost felt guilty after pipping Thursday's stage winner Asgreen on the line after a late escape following the 173 km run from Moirans-en-Montagne to Poligny.
Australia's Ben O'Connor was a close third, four seconds behind with runaway race leader Jonas Vingegaard retaining the yellow jersey with two stages left after finishing among the peloton nearly 14 minutes off the pace.
"I almost feel bad for Asgreen taking him on in that sprint but in the end you do it for yourself," said Mohoric after his third Tour stage victory two years after his double.
"This is the Tour de France, everyone gives everything believe me, it changes your life.
"I gave it all because I didn't want to get back on the bus tonight with any regrets.
"I was in the best shape of my life for that sprint today. In the third week it comes down to the mental aspect. You can never give up."
Raced through the narrow country roads of the pretty Ain region in eastern France the riders set a blistering pace of almost 50kph in the mild temperature around 22C, a drop from a few days ago.
Mohoric was emotional after claiming a third stage win on this Tour for Bahrain, following Pello Bilbao and Wout Poels, a month after the tragic death of Swiss teammate Gino Maeder.
The Slovenian was still in tears when his compatriot Tadej Pogacar, runner-up last year, fell into his arms after crossing the line at Poligny as the peloton finished a quarter of an hour later.
"This victory means so much to me. It's so difficult and cruel to be a professional rider," said Mohoric.
"You suffer a lot. You sacrifice your life, your family, just to be ready to come here."
There isn't one quote we could pick out of this interview to do it justice. If there is one interview you watch today, make it this one with @matmohoric.
On n'a pas su choisir une seule citation qui rendrait hommage à l'interview. Du coup si vous devez écoutez un seul interview… pic.twitter.com/sK0LUkCStD — Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 21, 2023
LAST HURDLE FOR VINGEGAARD
The Slovenian proved to be the toughest and smartest on a stage which included multiple attacks, breakaway attempts and the pack splitting into several groups.
The peloton, with defending champion Vingegaard, rode at a steady pace to save tired legs for the final mountain test in the Vosges, with the Dane on the brink of sealing his triumph on the Champs Elysees in Paris on Sunday.
The race leader was coy on his plans for stage 20, despite his 7min 35sec lead on Pogacar, the 2020 and 2021 Tour champion.
"I think for sure tomorrow is going to be explosive and everyone in the bunch saved their legs for tomorrow," said Vingegaard.
Pogacar promised one final roll of the dice.
"We have plans for tomorrow and four or five riders who could win the stage for the team," he said.
Belgian sprint specialist Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Deceunink fell short of a fifth win on this Tour but retained his sprint points jersey after finishing in the first chasing group.
"There were a lot of attacks early and a very fast pace," said Jumbo-Visma's Vingegaard.
"We don't know yet how we will play it tomorrow, we don't like to say but it depends on how I feel," said the race leader.
Vingegaard can no longer count on the help of Wout van Aert, with the Belgian rushing home for the birth of his first child.
But cycling's all-time great Eddy Merckx believes Vingegaard's climbing makes him stronger on Grand Tours than his rival Pogacar ahead of stage 20.
"Pogacar is still a more complete rider," Merckx told AFP. "But for the moment, in the high mountains at least, Vingegaard remains the stronger of the two."
The 26-year-old Dane won the 2022 Tour de France by turning the screw on the then two-time defending champion Pogacar on a sizzling day on the final climb of a major mountain stage.
TOUR DE FRANCE RESULTS AND STANDINGS
1. Matej Mohoric (SLO/TBV) 3hr 31min 02sec,
2. Kasper Asgreen (DEN/SOQ) same time,
3. Ben O'Connor (AUS/ACT) at 4sec,
4. Jasper Philipsen (BEL/ADC) at 39sec,
5. Mads Pedersen (DEN/LTK) s.t,
6. Christophe Laporte (FRA/TJV) s.t,
7. Luka Mezgec (SLO/JAY) s.t,
8. Alberto Bettiol (ITA/EFE) s.t,
9. Matteo Trentin (ITA/UAD) s.t,
10. Tom Pidcock (GBR/IGD) 39.
37. Jonas Vingegaard (DEN/TJV) 13:43,
38. Sepp Kuss (USA/TJV) s.t,
42. Tadej Pogacar (SLO/UAD) s.t,
43. Adam Yates (GBR/UAD) s.t,
44. Carlos Rodríguez (ESP/IGD) 13:43.
1. Jonas Vingegaard (DEN/TJV) 75hr 49min 24sec,
2. Tadej Pogacar (SLO/UAD) at 7min 35sec,
3. Adam Yates (GBR/UAD) 10:45,
4. Carlos Rodriguez (ESP/IGD) 12:01,
5. Simon Yates (GBR/JAY) 12:19,
6. Pello Bilbao (ESP/TBV) 12:50,
7. Jai Hindley (AUS/BOH) 13:50,
8. Felix Gall (AUT/ACT) 16:11,
9. Sepp Kuss (USA/TJV) 16:49,
10. David Gaudu (FRA/GFC) 17:57.