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Marcel Kittel won stage 12 of the Tour de France on Thursday in Tours. Kittel (Argos-Shimano) aced two late, 90-degree corners and powered his way across the finish straight to deliver his third win of the 100th Tour in a nervous sprint after the 218-kilometer ride from Fougères.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was second and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) was third. The win was the fifth in 11 individual stages for Germany and carried Kittel to the top of the victory column.
“I would like to dedicate that win to my whole team and especially Tom Veelers,” said Kittel. “He had to fight today just to finish with his wounds [from a crash on Tuesday].”
Chris Froome (Sky) defended his overall lead of 3:25 over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), with no changes in the top five.
Five riders made a break for it 3.5km into the race: Francesco Gavazzi (Astana), Romain Sicard (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Manuele Mori (Lampre-Merida), Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM), and Anthony Delaplace (Sojasun).
The group gained a maximum advantage of around 9:00 over the peloton, but with crosswinds buffeting the course, the peloton eventually seemed nervous to let the quintet get too far in front.
With the race getting down to business, André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) dropped back to his team car with 70km to go and switched to an aero helmet. He also filled his skinsuit — which the whole team was wearing — with bottles to hand out to his teammates.
The gap slowly decreased and when the leaders passed the intermediate sprint, which occurred with 52km left, the time difference was down to 3:10. When the peloton crossed the sprint line, the gap had dropped to 2:29.
The top speedsters in the peloton staged an exciting show at the intermediate sprint point. Omega Pharma, Lotto, and Cannondale were driving at the front of the peloton, trying to position their top men — Cavendish, Greipel, and green jersey Sagan, respectively.
With the line less than a hundred meters away, Cavendish and Greipel began their final push to the line. Sagan, however, got pinched against the barriers by Danny Van Poppel (Vacansoleil), who sprinted but sat up in the final 75 meters, and nearly crashed. As Sagan crossed the line, he turned and said a few words in anger to the Dutch rider.
“Peter tried on the right side of the road, but there was another rider that we, frankly, didn’t expect to be up there,” said Cannondale director Stefano Zannata. “He impended Peter and it cost us a few points, but we’re ok because Peter is still in the jersey.”
Cavendish held off Greipel to finish sixth in the sprint — first in the bunch — with Sagan taking eighth.
Up ahead, Sicard had dropped off the breakaway during the intermediate sprint. With 47km left, the now four-man group has a 2:29 lead over the peloton. He rejoined the bunch with 43km left.
When Omega Pharma led the peloton under to 20km to go banner, the gap was down to 36 seconds. Motivated to protect their leaders, Sky and Saxo-Tinkoff both moved to the front soon after to shepherd Froome and Alberto Contador through the tricky approach to Tours.
With 15km to go, the break was falling apart. Gavazzi and Flecha continued on as their mates went backward. Delaplace was back in the peloton with 13.5km to go and the two leaders had 15 seconds.
Flecha attacked soon after, leaving Gavazzi, who made no attempt to follow and looked over his shoulder to the bunch. The Spaniard, who is the only man in the race to have won a stage in the Tour’s 2003 centenary, dropped low over his bars and pushed on. With 12km to go, he had 22 seconds.
A stressful finale
Orica organized and took to the front of the chase with 10km to go. The Aussie train drove the peloton in pursuit of Flecha and the Spaniard was soon finished.
A slick roundabout 4km from the line took down the man on front of the Orica train, but did not interrupt the peloton’s pace. Omega Pharma took advantage of the confusion, however, and took to the front of the race.
The fight was on for the first of two late, 90-degree corners. Argos-Shimano surged and took to the front, but slowed with 2.9km to go and Omega Pharma’s best young rider Michal Kwiatkowski was on the point.
Just then, disaster struck for Lotto when a crash took down a full third of the bunch. The late corners were expected to wreak havoc, but the crash struck on a straightaway. Greipel was among the riders caught out and the crash would cost him second in the points classification at the finish.
“It’s difficult, but we have our own train and a good sprinter like André, but if the train is crashed, it’s over and that’s bad news for us,” said Lotto director Marc Wauters.
Sky’s strong all-rounder Edvald Boasson Hagen went down in the crash and was being examined after the stage for a suspected broken collarbone, according to team boss Dave Brailsford.
“It’s always like this in a sprint final,” said Froome. “There was another crash again today. It’s the same for all. Normally, I am in the optimum position, but sometimes it’s impossible to avoid the crash. I prefer to stay with two or three teammates. Ian Stannard is very strong in this situation. Today, Edvald Boasson Hagen crashed; I hope he’s ok.”
Up front, Omega Pharma and Argos went toe-to-toe along the right side of the road. The white-clad Dutch squad out-powered its Belgian counterpart, and Cannondale followed.
Argos led through the first right-hand bend, blocking Cannondale with four riders across the road, but Sagan stayed fifth wheel. Omega Pharma regrouped behind and Gert Steegmans nailed the final right-hand corner, giving Cavendish a picture-perfect leadout to the front of the race. The pair came from 10 wheels back to open a gap, the former world champion tucked tightly into Steegmans’ big slipstream.
After jumping off Matteo Trentin’s (Omega Pharma) wheel, Kittel latched onto Cavendish.
“When I saw Cav coming past me, I just got on his wheel,” said Kittel. “It was just about giving everything.”
The Manxman jumped and Kittel, as he’d never done before on a major stage, simply out-kicked Cavendish. The German came even in the final 100 meters and took a photo finish with a big bike throw.
“Today was a true sprint, that’s why I’m particularly happy,” said Kittel, who had beaten Cavendish earlier this season in the Grand Prix de l’Escaut. “I’ve waited a long time for a moment like this.”
With Kittel’s stage 10 sprint win and Tony Martin’s (Omega Pharma) TT win on Wednesday, the victory made it three in a row for Germany — the first time in history the country has produced three consecutive stage wins in the Tour.
“It was a headwind and we tried to come later, but it wasn’t possible,” said Argos’ Tom Dumoulin. “With the crash it was hectic, but we made it through and we did it again.”
Sagan came through third, one spot ahead of Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
“We could go back and look over it again and again,” said Cavendish. “The guys were incredible in the train. Everyone knew what they had to do. We’re lucky we stayed in the front and avoided the crash.”
Later, in a team press release, Cavendish reiterated that Kittel is the man for the future in the bunch finishes.
“You can sit there and analyze it, but when there is someone simply faster than you there is nothing you can do,” said Cavendish. “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.”
The 100th Tour de France continues Friday with the 173km 13th stage, from Tours to Saint Amand Montrond.
Associate editor Jason Devaney and Agence France Presse contributed to this report.