German Marcel Kittel of Giant-Shimano won the stage 4 field sprint Tuesday, his third stage win in four stages of this 2014 Tour de France.
Kittel beat out Norweigan Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), with French national champion Arnaud Démare (FDJ) finishing third.
“It was a very hard sprint. The last 30 kilometers was very fast, and it was difficult to stay together,” Kittel said. “The boys delivered me perfectly. I was on the wheel of [Mark] Renshaw, and all I was thinking about where the last corner was. I was tempted to go at 500 meters, I couldn’t really see where I was. I went really long. It was everything I had. It was really difficult.”
After three days in the United Kingdom, the first stage of the 2014 Tour on French soil was a 163km affair, from Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to Lille, featuring two category 4 climbs. Light intermittent rain fell throughout the day.
Fromer Tour winner Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) did not take the start, citing a ligament tear to his right knee.
Two riders, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Luis Maté (Cofidis) escaped from the peloton immediately, opening a gap of around three minutes within the first 20km. The teams of sprinters Kittel and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) as well as race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) took up the chase.
Tour champion Chris Froome had a crash just 5km into the race, along with Bauke Mollema (Belkin), but was not seriously injured.
Peter Sagan’s third place at the intermediate sprint in Cassel with 71km remaining increased his lead at the top of the points classification by 15 points. Bryan Coquard (Europcar) took fifth place and 11 points, enough to move up to second in the green jersey classification.
Cannondale’s effort into the intermediate sprint momentarily split the peloton; riders caught out in the second chase group included Démare, Joaquim Rodriguez (Kaatusha), and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who had punctured earlier.
With 61km to go, the gap to Maté and Voeckler was down to just 30 seconds. Maté punctured with 55km to go, leaving Voeckler on his own.
Another crash, with 50km to go, took down Paris-Rouabix winner Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), though he was able to continue on.
With 45km remaining, Voeckler’s gap had stretched to 1:20 over the peloton.
Yet another crash, through a traffic circle at 30km to go, took down Lotto-Belisol’s Greg Henderson, Bart de Clerq, and Lars Bak. Henderson, who struggled with knee problems during the offseason, abandoned the race, weakening Greipel’s leadout train.
Up ahead, Voeckler pushed on alone, but the peloton was intent on a sprint finish. With 20km remaining, Voeckler dangled off the front with a slight 14-second lead.
Next up to run into trouble was Sagan, who went down in a crash inside the final 20km, and was forced to chase his way back through the peloton.
As the peloton rolled into Lille and Voeckler was finally brought back into the fold, Tinkoff-Saxo and Garmin-Sharp came to the front, looking to protect their respective leaders, Alberto Contador and Andrew Talansky.
Inside the final 3km Omega Pharma set up its leadout train, looking to set up Aussie Mark Renshaw, who has been appointed the team’s finisher after the stage 1 exit of the injured Mark Cavendish.
As the bunch wound up for the sprint, Kittel poised himself on Renshaw’s wheel, while Katusha’s Luca Paolini and Alex Porsev led out Kristoff. Sagan rode immediately behind Kittel.
Kristoff looked poised to take the win, but Kittel timed his jump perfectly to take his seventh Tour stage win in two years. Sagan finished fourth, with Coquard fifth, Greipel sixth, and Renshaw in seventh.
“I was close to victory,” Kristoff said. “The team was great, Luca [Paolini] did a big job and then Alex [Prosev] was truly amazing. I saw that I had a small break and I absolutely gave everything. Maybe it was a little too early, but it was still a good attempt. Kittel was simply stronger. But I will continue to try my luck. ”
Kittel said a third sprint win in three attempts doesn’t mean he cannot be beaten.
“Kristoff is a dangerous guy. I think today we saw that we are not unbeatable,” Kittel said. “We always need to have to have a plan and concentrate on our preparation for the sprint. It was close today.”