By Julien Pretot
ROMANS-SUR-ISERE, France (Reuters) - Michael Matthews improved his chances of winning the points classification on the Tour de France, as the Australian claimed the 16th stage on Tuesday after his Sunweb team worked hard to keep green jersey holder Marcel Kittel out of contention.
Sunweb rode hard in the first climb of the day as German Kittel was dropped, making sure he would not come back, and they collected their third win in four stages after Matthews won stage 14 and Frenchman Warren Barguil prevailed on stage 13.
Matthews collected points in the intermediate sprint and at the finish to narrow the gap with Kittel to 29, setting up a duel with the Quick-Step Floors rider in the final days of the race.
"It had been the same guy every year for five years (Peter Sagan), now this is going to be exciting," said Matthews, who outsprinted Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen and German John Degenkolb.
Degenkolb complained that Matthews did not hold his line in the sprint, but the Australian was adamant he raced fairly.
"I saw the sprint on TV afterwards. I sprinted in the same direction, I did not change my line. I left a space between me and the barrier," Matthews said, adding that Degenkolb had grabbed him by the neck after the finish.
"He grabbed me by the neck. The officials saw that, I don't know what they're going to do about it. I don't think it's very sportsmanlike."
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.
Martin slipped to seventh, 2:03 behind race leader Chris Froome, who retained the yellow jersey after his Team Sky's brutal acceleration 14km from the line caused the decisive split in the peloton.
With several other top sprinters out of contention after being trapped behind, Matthews was the strongest of what was left of the bunch.
Overall, Froome leads Italian Fabio Aru by 18 seconds.
"Everybody knew that the last 20 kilometres were in the wind and that's where we decided to up the pace to make a selection," said Froome.
Frenchman Romain Bardet, who was at the wrong end of the split, had his AG2R-La Mondiale team mate Oliver Naesen to thank as the Belgian champion produced a massive effort to bring him back into the front group.
Bardet stays third overall, 23 seconds off the pace ahead of a couple of brutal stages in the Alps on Wednesday and Thursday.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Christian Radnedge)