Epernay — Dane Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig outmuscled Marianne Vos to win stage three of the women's Tour de France on Tuesday but the veteran Dutch rider held on to the yellow jersey.
The day after a nightmare stage two for her FDJ-Suez team, marked by the abandonment of title contender Marta Cavalli, Ludwig, who also battled back from a fall on Monday, produced a vintage performance in the Champagne region.
After two relatively flat rides, the peloton had to face its first climbs as they took on the 133.6km course from Reims to Epernay.
Eleven riders slugged it out over the final stages, with Vos working hard to rejoin the leaders after being dropped.
The 35-year-old, who took over the yellow jersey with victory in stage two on Monday, kicked hard but it was the younger legs of 26-year-old Ludwig who powered through the line first.
"I have to say that it feels like such a good comeback after yesterday," said a tearful Ludwig who was wearing the jersey of Danish champion.
"I just love how the team kept the fighting spirit. We knew that today was a super good day and if I had the legs, I could try and go for the win.
"To actually do it and become a Tour de France stage winner, and in this jersey, it doesn't get better."
Team Jumbo-Visma's Vos finished two seconds behind, closely shadowed by South African Ashleigh Moolman, Italians Silvia Persico and Elisa Lono Borghini and Pole Katarzyna Niewiadoma.
"I didn't come into the last corner in the best position but I just kept fighting," added Ludwig, whose stage win came just two days after her compatriot Jonas Vingegaard won the men's Tour de France title.
"What a year for Denmark."
Vos leads the general classification with a 16-second lead over Valcar-Travel and Service's Persico and Niewiadoma of Canyon-SRAM.
"I think Cecilie definitely had the best legs in the end, so I can't be disappointed but I just gave it all to be up there in the mix," said three-time world road champion Vos.
"I don't think I can be disappointed. We tried our best today. We knew it was going to be hard over the climbs."
Sick Van Vleuten struggles
Annemiek van Vleuten, the pre-race favourite, struggled with illness and was dropped on the Mont Bernon climb four kilometres from the finish.
The Olympic time-trial champion managed to rejoin the leading group but again fell away in the closing stages and finished 20 seconds after Ludwig.
Van Vleuten, bidding to complete a Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double, said she had barely been able to eat in the last two days.
"Today was actually awesome compared to yesterday, because yesterday I was actually really, really sick," she told Eurosport.
"It started a couple of hours after the first stage, I had a stomach infection.
"The last thing I was thinking about was racing."
The Dutchwoman sits ninth in the standings, 74 seconds off the pace set by Vos.
Wednesday's fourth stage of the eight-stage race, which ends on Sunday, is a 126km ride over steep ramps and unpaved roads from Troyes to Bar-sur-Aube.