German Marcel Kittel of the Etixx-Quick Step squad won the fourth stage of the Tour de France, a 237.5 km ride from Saumur on Tuesday
The Tours bunch sprints are always tense affairs but usually the tension precedes the finish rather than coming after it. Here, however, the margin between Marcel Kittel and the Frenchman Bryan Coquard on the line devoted a positively generous look to the few inches that had separated Mark Cavendish from Andr Greipel in Angers the previous day. Kittel landed his ninth Tour stage win by a few millimetres, so tight which was originally the French television commentators were excited it had gone their men way. Again , no one knew who had won until the photo finish had been scrutinised.
The finish up the 700 metres of Avenue Georges Dumas from the river Vienne was steep enough for long enough to give the relative lightweights such as Coquard reason to hope, and brought a whole new element to the finish mix. So too did the breathtakingly fast and highly dangerous downhill run-in through the town to the river, past the railway station, round bends with no visible exit, through roundabouts and in and out of traffic islands, all at a speed some five or 10 kph faster than usual.
The triple 2014 stage win, Alexander Kristoff, was first to stimulate his effort, but as Coquard said subsequently, this was a finish where the winner would have to leave it late; not astonishingly the Norwegian faded as Kittel kicked in the midst of the road, with Coquard accelerating rapidly to close the initial gap from a few lengths behind, but then visibly struggling to come level with the German. In the final metres he had just enough momentum, or so it seemed, but his right shoulder made contact with Kittels left and slowed him down fractionally.
The Frenchman has progressed steadily since winning the silver medal in the way omnium at the London Olympics and will surely soon get the stage-win he merits; however, the fact that there is local Raymond Poulidor the celebrated eternal second, and most popular French cyclist of all time on the pulpit afterwards served as a reminder that finishing a valiant runner-up is anything but career suicide in France.
Slumped on the tarmac afterwards, Kittel described the wait to find out who had won as, horrible; more than usual was riding on this win after he spent 2015 in the doldrums. English fans will remember his brief appearance at the Tour de Yorkshire which was painful to watch and summed up a season spent fighting a virus, making one abortive comeback after another, until the Giant-Alpecin team refused to send him to the Tour after which he left to replace Mark Cavendish at Etixx squads in-house fastman.
This is a very, very important day for my career; if I can win even a 237 -km stage with an uphill finish that presents Im back at the highest level, said the German, who had already shown that 2015 was well behind him by winning 12 races this year including two stages of the Giro dItalia. With both him and Cavendish seemingly back to their best, that promises much for the remaining flat stages, beginning with operate south to Montauban.
Cavendish lost contact with his lead-out men, began the sprint well back, was boxed in as other riders lost momentum, but still had enough zip to finish eighth in a finish that did not entirely suit him, one place behind the British newcomer Dan McLay, whose promising proving continued. The green jersey is now on the shoulders of Peter Sagan by a measly five points the world champion was third here, right in the mixture once again and when the race enters the mountains the Slovak is likely to draw farther ahead.
With a 216 -km stage including five second and thirdcategory mounds in the final 80 km through the Cantal, the first serious climbing comes on Wednesday, earlier than in any Tour since the 1992 race made a brief visit to the Pyrenees. There is nothing on the scale of what lies ahead later on, but it should be enough to create a selection and as on the road to Cherbourg on Sunday one or two overall contenders are likely to come unstuck. Alberto Contador will be closely watched, so too Geraint Thomas, who has been nurse severe bruising to the ribs since his accident at the finish at Utah Beach.
Conventionally, the Tour organisers wait a little longer to send the field up any serious climbings, but the reasoning this year is that the sooner the field is tired out the better, as the tirednes will help to settle nerves and thus prevent accidents. After Wednesday, the longest any flat reprieve between mountain stages will last is a single day the exit from the Pyrenees next Tuesday is via the highest pass of the entire race, the Port dEnvalira lending weight to the argument that this is the most mountainous Tour of recent years.
Whether the yellow jersey changes hands at the finish at Le Lioran on Wedesday remains to be seen. French eyes will be on Julian Alaphilippe, who lies simply 12 seconds behind Sagan and can climb, but the world champ has managed to ride strongly through what is termed medium mountain in the past.
The more intriguing question is whether Tinkoff will expend energy in defence of his jersey, which in turn may depend on whether Contador is seen as a busted flush and Sagans lead takes priority over the Spaniards chances of a high place overall.
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