By Julien Pretot
ANDORRA (Reuters) -American Sepp Kuss claimed his maiden victory on the Tour de France with a solo ride in the 15th stage as defending champion Tadej Pogacar was barely bothered in the 191.3-km mountain trek from Ceret to Andorra on Sunday.
The Jumbo-Visma rider prevailed from the day's breakaway thanks to a sharp attack in the last climb before holding off Alejandro Valverde in the descent to the finish with the Spanish veteran taking second place 23 seconds behind.
Dutchman Wout Poels finished third, 1:15 off the pace before Pogacar and his main challengers crossed the line 4:51 behind Kuss.
"I've had some victories, some memorable, but I never thought I'd win a stage on the Tour de France," said Kuss, who already had a Vuelta stage win under his belt.
The 26-year-old gave his team their second victory in this year's Tour after their designated leader, Primoz Roglic, pulled out injured following a crash.
Pogacar heads into Monday's rest day with an advantage of five minutes and 18 seconds on Colombian Rigoberto Uran with Dane Jonas Vingegaard, Kuss's team mate, in third place a further 14 seconds adrift.
France's Guillaume Martin, who had jumped up to second courtesy of his presence in the breakaway on Saturday, was distanced in the descent from the Port d'Envalira, at 2,408 metres the highest point of this year's Tour.
He could not make it back to the group of overall contenders before the ascent of the Col de Beixalis (6.4km at 8.5%), where Pogacar's rivals tried to unsettle the Slovenian.
Ecuador's Richard Carapaz was the first attacker but he was easily reined in by Pogacar, who also had little trouble staying in the wheels of Uran and Vingegaard when they briefly jumped away.
Further up the road Kuss, one of many professional riders to reside in Andorra, where they find perfect conditions for altitude training and benefit from the principality's low taxes, went solo some two kilometres into the ascent of the Col de Beixalis.
Valverde suffered but paced himself to the top, which he reached 20 seconds after Kuss.
In the tricky downhill, Kuss, who was Roglic's top lieutenant when the Slovenian finshed runner-up last year, made no mistakes to take the biggest win of his career.
Now Kuss will shift back to his domestique duties, working for Vingegaard. "It's good to have a rest day tomorrow, and recuperate and relax. Now we're in the third week and Jonas is super strong," he said.
"We can be really happy with the two stage wins and we can shift the focus to Jonas. We still have to discuss the tactics but with summit finishes coming up maybe we can take risks."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Peter Graff, Christian Radnedge and Andrew Cawthorne)