Tour: Aru still 18 secs down on Froome

Ahead of two grueling Alpine stages likely to decide the outcome of the 104th Tour de France, Chris Froome and his teammates have sent a clear message to their rivals with another impressive display of collective strength.

German Marcel Kittel, who was dropped early in the stage after failing to sustain the pace in the first climb, was 3.2kph slower on average than Australian stage victor Michael Matthews.

Degenkolb complained that Matthews did not hold his line in the sprint, but the Australian was adamant he raced fairly.

"I was trying to get in the breakaway early, but Quick-Step was following, they didn't want me in the breakaway", Matthews said.

The stage win was contested out of a 32-man group of contenders, having distanced themselves with 13 kilometers to go in the crosswinds. "I didn't change my line, I sprinted in a straight line", Matthews responded.

The race will enter the Alps tomorrow during a 114 mile stage from La Mure to Serre Chevalier. "The officials saw it".

Matthews said with so few stages left he would be hunting high and low for points over the next few days as he tries to snatch the green top from powerhouse Kittel, who has already won five stages at this year's event. "I think it won't sink in until tomorrow morning".

It was a bad day for Quick-Step Floors as Ireland's Dan Martin, who started the day in fifth place overall, lost 51 seconds after a late peloton split as crosswinds swept the roads in the Rhone valley.

"From then on it was an eight-man team time trial to the finish and I was able to finish off the job in the last 500 metres".

Safely in the front group were the three riders occupying the podium positions this morning - overall leader Froome, Astana's Fabio Aru and Romain Bardet of AG2R-La Mondiale.

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