SAINT-ETIENNE: There were no changes among the overall leaders as Norway's Alexander Kristoff won the 185km 12th stage of the Tour de France after a sprint finish in Saint-Etienne on Thursday.
Peter Sagan took second on a stage for the fourth time this Tour without winning one, while young French sprinter Arnaud Demare was third.
Vincenzo Nibali maintained the leader's yellow jersey after finishing safely in the peloton.
The Italian remains 2min 23sec ahead of Australian Richie Porte with Spaniard Alejandro Valverde at 2:47.
Another undulating stage which started in Bourg-en-Bresse in baking conditions proved something of a lull before the expected fireworks of Friday's first Alpine stage.
A five-man breakaway spent most of the day in front but was gradually whittled down to just Australian Simon Clarke.
He was caught by Frenchmen Cyril Gautier and Perrig Quemeneur with 20km left but they were all reeled in with 5km to go.
Sagan's Cannondale team took over the pace-setting duties in a bid to finally drag their team leader to a stage victory after eight top-10 finishes in the first 11 stages.
Several top sprinters had been shelled out the back of the field on the lumpy terrain leading up to the finish and Andre Greipel crashed, making Sagan and German John Degenkolb among the favourites for sprint victory.
But following his win at Milan-San Remo back in March, Kristoff gained his second major success of the season.
That left Sagan still looking for a first win this Tour having won four over the previous two editions.
Regardless, he has double the points of his nearest rival in his battle for a third straight win in the sprint competition.
"Maybe it's because from the first stage until now, every day I'm in front and maybe I'm a little bit more tired than the other sprinters, who are a little bit more relaxed," he said of his failure to win a stage."
But he denied he was getting frustrated: "Maybe other riders in the group would like to be second four times like me. Maybe for other sprinters it's more difficult to take the green jersey."
Kristoff said Sagan perhaps had a point about tiredness as he had saved his legs the previous day.
"Yesterday (Wednesday) I took it easy ahead of today's stage," said the Katusha sprinter.
"Maybe that was the key to success, saving my legs. I was feeling quite good yesterday and today even on the climbs I still felt quite good and was never on the limit."
Kristoff won one of the Monuments of cycling in March, the Milan-San Remo one-day Spring Classic race, and he said this came a close second.
"The team is set up for the Classics. When I won San Remo it was bigger for the team.
"This was my second goal this year, the Spring Classics was the first goal and now I've achieved both."
Friday's relatively long Stage 13 will also put riders' legs under the most strain so far.
The 197.5km trek begins in Saint-Etienne and will feature the Category 1 Palaquit pass and finally an 18km ascent to the Alpine village of Chamrousse - one of cycling's hardest climbs.
Nibali, however, sees a greater challenge a day later.
"It's surely the second stage in the Alps that scares me the most," the Astana leader said, "because on the first one everyone has energy, and it's always the second one that requires more energy - and where you pay for your efforts."
Thursday started with the gritty hero of Wednesday's stage Andrew Talansky pulling out due to an injured back and hip.
He had toiled for more than 100km alone on Wednesday to get home inside the cut-off point, managing to do so despite finishing 32 minutes behind the winner.