Marcel Kittel of Argos Shimano has won his third stage of the Tour de France in Tours this afternoon, the German sticking on the afterburners to overtake Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Mark Cavendish right on the line. Points classification leader Peter Sagan of Cannondale finished third. A big crash some 2 kilometres from the end of the 218 kilometre stage from Fougères meant it was a group of just 25 or so men who contested the finale, with race leader Chris Froome of Team Sky safely in that front bunch and avoiding the carnage behind.
His team mate Edvald Boasson Hagen appears to be one of the more badly injured riders in that late chute, however, and while Froome has a dominant lead on the General Classification, there will be fears in the Team Sky camp that their complement could be further depleted with a number of riders carryinhg injuries and Vasil Kiryienka eliminated after missing the time cut on Sunday.
Cavendish, still seeking his 25th stage win in the Tour de France, had got a terrific leadout today from team mate Gert Steegmans and seemed to have victory in his grasp, but overhead pictures suggested he eased up slightly ahead of the line, only to look across in disbelief as Kittel powered past him.
With Lotto-Belisol’s André Greipel one of the riders held up by that late crash – taking place inside the final 3 kilometres, all will receive the same time as the winner – Cavendish moves into second place in the battle for the green jersey, although Sagan still retains a commanding lead of 96 points.
At 218 kilometres, it was a long, hot day in the saddle as the race headed southwest towards the Loire Valley, but while the profile was relatively flat with no categorised climbs, a twisting finale lay in wait in a city more readily associated with the long, straight run-in along the Avenue de Grammont that features in Paris Tours.
In particular, two 90-degree right-hand bends needed to be negotiated within the final 700 metres or so of the stage, something that was bound to weigh on the minds of the sprinters and their leadout men as they headed into Tours.
As it turned out, the big danger came more than a kilometre beforehand as a crash, possibly caused by a rider clipping a kerb, brought down a number of riders, with dozens more held up behind by the tangle of bodies and bikes.
At that point, Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Argos Shimano had been fighting for position at the front of the bunch, but Lotto-Belisol were further back, ending Greipel’s chances of challenging for what could have been his second stage win of the race.
Froome, in the yellow jersey, keeping near the front to try and avoid trouble, only narrowly managed to escape the crash himself.
Early on in the stage, five men had got away – Astana’s Francesco Gavazzi, Vacansoleil-DCM’s Juan Antonio Flecha, Anthony Delaplace of Sojasun and two men riding their debut Tour de France, Euskaltel’s Romain Sicard and Lampre’s Manuele Mori.
Having built a maximum advantage of 9 minutes at one point, they were slowly but inexorably brought back, with Flecha the last to be caught, as the sprinters’ teams ratcheted up the pace ahead of that fraught finale.
Prior to the Spaniard being brought back with 6km remaining, Gavazzi had outsprinted him to take the day’s prize for the intermediate sprint, today placed 52 kilometres from the finish.
Behind the break, the Tour’s top sprinters once again went head to head for the remaining intermediate sprint points, Cavendish taking it from Greipel and picking up 10 points in the process.
Sagan was also aiming to challenge for the sprint, but was almost sent into the barriers on the right as Kris Boeckmans of Vacansoleil-DCM appeared to drift across his line.
The Cannondale rider, based in Italy for most of his career, angrily gesticulated at the Belgian afterwards with what any student of Italian body language would recognise as the gesture that roughly translates as “What the hell do you think you were you doing?”
While Sagan looks likely to retain the green jersey he won for the first time, his reaction reflects something that will be uppermost in all riders’ minds as the race heads into its final ten days – you never know when some incident may bring your Tour to a premature end.
The race resumes tomorrow with what is predicted to be a sprint finish in Lyon, although there are several climbns to negotiate along the way, ahead of a much anticipated climb of Mont Ventoux on Sunday.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.