There’s still a week and a half until the Tour de France hits Paris, but after Marcel Kittel beat Mark Cavendish to the line to win the Stage 12 sprint in Tours today, could this be the year the Manxman finally meets his match on the Champs-Elysées, where he has never been beaten?
That’s one of the big talking points after today’s stage, the other being the crash a little over 2 kilometres from the end of the 218 kilometre stage from Fougères that resulted in Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen leaving the race with a fractured shoulder, and his team mate and race leader Chris Froome reflecting on the importance of staying out of trouble as he keeps the yellow jersey. You can read Froome’s thoughts here.
Cavendish, who had looked poised to clinch the stage after getting a fantastic leadout from Omega Pharma-Quick Step colleague Gert Steegmans, had been full of praise for Kittel prior to today’s stage, and despite being visibly shocked by the pace at which the young German came past him to pip him to the line this afternoon, was still dishing out the compliments afterwards.
Mark Cavendish, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, second in Tours today
You can sit there and analyse it, but when there is someone simply faster than you there is nothing you can do.
I don't think me, or the team, could have done anything differently. He was just simply better today.
I tweeted the other day I think he's the next big thing. I spoke with him today actually. I think he's the next superstar in sprinting and he showed it today. He's won three stages now and that's not easy. I can tell you that from experience.
My team did incredible today. We analysed the finish beforehand. In the last days I think we've been a little to eager, you know, which is kind of a good thing because it means you've got the commitment from everybody. But ultimately we always ran out of guys.
So today we talked about staying calm and staying patient and going at the last moment. The guys were a lot more comfortable and it made my job a lot easier. I'm just really disappointed I couldn't finish it off for them.
Kittel takes his personal tally to three stages in the race – no-one else, including Cavendish, Peter Sagan, third today, or André Greipel who was held up behind that late crash has more than one. It’s also the fifth victory by a German in this year’s race, something not seen since the days of Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel.
He dedicated today’s victory to team mate Tom Veelers, who lost a lot of skin at the end of Tuesday’s Stage 10 when he believes he was shoved off his bike by Cavendish, and went on to thank his team for the part they played in today’s victory.
Marcel Kittel of Argos Shimano, Stage 12 winner, his third stage victory of the 100th Tour.
It's quite unbelievable. It feels like a dream and it's something very, very special for me and the whole team. The boys did a great job.
We stayed really calm today and I cannot say that anyone made a mistake – the sprint preparation was very good and I'm unbelievably proud of how we stick together and I really enjoy working with My Boys.
Today I was the fastest man in the peloton.
Koen de Kort was a bit afraid that I might win again because we had a bet that, if I win three stages he has to shave his head. This is going to happen now. Since the first win we could just enjoy the Tour and easily focus on the next goals: winning stages. We have three wins already now and I'm so proud of my whole team. It's difficult to describe it with words.
I want to finish the Tour de France and that means making it all the way to Paris and now I just have to survive another sprint stage and the Alps. It's pretty hard there, I've heard, but with the race that we've done already we can actually relax a little and that gives us a lot of extra motivation.
So could Kittel be the man to end Cavendish’s monopoly in Paris, assuming both make it through a tough final week in the Alps?
Well, right now, the German seems to be the form sprinter of the Tour. His Stage 1 victory that put him into yellow jersey may have had an element of luck to it – the crash five kilometres from the end of that stage ruled out rivals including Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan – but he’s gone head to head with them twice this week, and won both times. His confidence must be soaring.
But no-one knows the final kilometre from the flamme rouge on the Rue de Rivoli to cycling’s most famous finish line better than Cavendish does; four times he’s ridden there, and four times he’s won, and by some ridiculous margins, too.
There’s an added dimension this year, however; for the first time, the closing stage will be raced in the evening to mark the conclusion of the 100th Tour de France, and the circuit will also pass behind the Arc de Triomphe, which will be lit up in yellow for the occasion.
Moreover, what we’ve seen this year is that there are four, maybe five teams in the race – Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Argos Shimano, Cannondale, Lotto-Belisol and even Orica-GreenEdge – prepared to fight it out at the front of the peloton for the right to get their men into the best possible position for the finale.
While Sagan may already have clinched the green jersey ahead of the closing day, and we’ll know who will be standing on top of the podium as race winner in the yellow one, there’s every chance the 100th edition of the race may come to an end with a furious battle between the two fastest men in the peloton.
It could be a spectacular end to the race – though there’s a fair bit of riding and suffering, and no doubt, further controversy – to be got through first.
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.