By Julien Pretot
SARRAN, France (Reuters) - After two agonising near misses, Swiss Marc Hirschi finally claimed his maiden Tour de France win, and his first as a professional, when he completed a solo break to take the 12th stage on Thursday.
Having finished second in the second stage in Nice and third in the ninth stage in Laruns after a long solo breakaway in the Pyrenees, the former Under-23 world champion held off a group of chasers to prevail following a bumpy 218-km trek that ended in former French president Jacques Chirac's hometown.
France's Pierre Rolland was second and Hirschi's Sunweb team mate Soren Kragh Andersen of Denmark took third place as Slovenian Primoz Roglic retained the overall leader's yellow jersey.
"It's unbelievable, I was twice really close and actually today I never believed that I could make it," said the 22-year-old Hirschi.
"I went full gas. It's super nice. Actually I was always doubting, I had the picture in my mind of the last two stages. My first victory as a professional, it's incredible. I know I'm strong. It just gave me extra power, it was now or never."
It was a quiet day for the main contenders but sparks could fly on Friday when the 13th stage takes the peloton to Puy Mary, at the top of the ascent to the Pas de Peyrol (5.4km at an average gradient of 8.1%).
"I think it looks like a really hard stage, it's going to be a nice challenge, we can expect some battle in the end," Roglic told reporters.
"We need to focus on ourselves and do our job but in the end a lot of things can happen."
Thursday's stage, the longest in this year's edition, was no walk in the park however as the bunch whizzed through Saint Leonard de Noblat, the hometown of former France great Raymond Poulidor, who died last November.
After a very fast start, six riders, including four-times Tour stage winner Luis Leon Sanchez, formed the early breakaway but the peloton kept them on a tight leash.
It was over for them when Spain's Marc Soler attacked in the Cote du Pey. The Movistar rider was joined by five riders, including Hirschi and two of his Sunweb team mates.
Soler jumped away in the brutal climb of the Suc au May (3.8km at an average gradient of 7.7%) but Hirschi counter attacked and crested the summit alone. He extended his lead in the descent and never looked back.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)