TOURS, France: Germany’s Marcel Kittel underlined his status as the top sprinter at the 100th Tour de France by beating Britain’s Mark Cavendish to victory on the crash-marred 12th stage yesterday.
Kenyan-born Briton Chris Froome of Team Sky finished just behind to protect his 3min 25sec lead over Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and 3:54 advantage over two-time race winner Alberto Contador.
Froome did well to stay clear of two crashes in the closing kilometers, and despite the flat terrain, he admitted: “It seems like there’s no such thing as an easy day on the Tour de France. It was a hard day out there.
“Every time I cross the finish line there’s a little sigh of relief.”
As Froome took another step toward an anticipated yellow jersey battle in the Alps beginning Sunday, Kittel matched compatriot Erik Zabel’s record for the most number of wins by a German in a single edition.
He also won the race opener and stage 10, when Cavendish came third having caused a crash which brought down Kittel’s Argos teammate Tom Veelers.
“I didn’t know that! But I’m proud of it,” said Kittel. “Today it was great to beat Cavendish in a straightforward sprint.”
Kittel, though, had one less opponent to deal with for the bunch gallop to the finish after compatriot Andre Greipel (Lotto) was delayed by a crash which brought down several of his teammates inside the last two kilometers.
Greg Henderson, Jurgen Roelandts and Marcel Sieberg all hit the tarmac and although they escaped serious injury the pile-up delayed Greipel sufficiently to end his sprint hopes.
Edvald Boasson Hagen, Froome’s Sky teammate, was also caught up and his future on this year’s Tour is now in doubt after he crossed the finish holding his collarbone.
It was his second spill of the day and race officials later announced the Norwegian had suffered a badly bruised elbow in the first crash and “small fractures” in the humerus bone at the top of his shoulder as well as on his right shoulder blade.
A five-man breakaway quickly formed on the 218km trek to Tours and they were allowed to build a lead which hit a maximum of nine minutes.
But on the last stage suited to the sprinters until the finale on the Champs Elysees in Paris, they were on borrowed time.
Experienced Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha was the last to resist but despite a late solo bid he was reeled in with six kilometers remaining.
Moments later a turn of speed at the front by Contador’s Saxo teammates prompted Sky’s Ian Stannard to haul Froome up near the front of the bunch on his wheel as the bunch split into several pieces in their wake.
When it came to the crunch, Kittel, racing his second Tour having quit with a viral infection on his debut last year, showed his previous wins were no fluke.
After the final bend helped thin out the group of frontrunners even further, Cavendish was brought on to the home straight in textbook fashion by Belgian lead-out man Gert Steegmans.
Kittel, however, jumped quickly on to Cavendish’s wheel in the final 250 meters and pulled off to the left to pass the Manxman with relative ease in the closing 50.
“In the final 200m I was able to sit on his wheel. We started the sprint together, and I had the best punch at the end,” added Kittel.
“I’m proud to know that I can beat the world’s best. We had worked and had prepared well before the Tour but when everything falls into place like this it is incredible.”
It was Germany’s fifth win from the 12 stages so far and prompted questions over the form of Cavendish, who has averaged a little more than four wins a year on the race since his maiden win in 2008.
But the Manxman, who has won only one stage so far on this edition, taking his career tally to 24, said he was beaten fair and square.
He said: “I could look at it again, but he was just faster.”