Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) sprinted to victory on the Champs-Élysées on the day that Britain’s Chris Froome (Team Sky) was crowned champion of the centennial edition of the Tour de France.
The traditional sprint for the Tour’s last offering of glory unfolded in thrilling style, with the three fastest men in the world going wheel-to-wheel on the most famous run-in in cycling.
Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) finished second, while Mark Cavendish, battling for a record fifth consecutive victory on the most exclusive avenue in France, finished a disappointed third.
But the day was reserved for a rider born in Nairobi, who learned his art by riding with an informal group in an impoverished township. The greatest chapter to date of Chris Froome’s magical journey ended on a podium in the centre of one of Europe’s major capitals after three weeks and 3,403.5km of racing, 14 days in the leader’s yellow jersey, and three emphatic stage wins.
A tearful Froome mounted the podium in a sequined yellow jersey and was invited to watch a spectacular two-minute light show, screened in his honour on to the pillars of the Arc de Triomphe.
“This is a beautiful country with the finest annual sporting event on the planet,” Froome said in his acceptance speech. “To win the hundredth edition is an honour beyond any I’d dreamed of. This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time.”
Froome dedicated his victory to his late mother without who’s support, he said, he would have been watching the race on television. He thanked his Sky team-mates for “burying themselves, day in, day out to keep this yellow jersey on my shoulders,” and thanked the team’s management for believing in him.
The riders had ridden on to the Rue de Rivoli nearly three hours earlier with Team Sky at the fore, as is traditional for the team of the winning rider. The British team experienced the honour for the first time last year, and took their place with confidence today. Froome pushed his lieutenant, Richie Porte, to the head of the line, and moments later, television cameras captured the pair smiling and pointing in to the sky as the Patrouille de France – the French Airforce equivalent of the Red Arrows – unleashed a giant Tricolour in smoke.
They arrived at dusk, and with a ferocious sun finally starting to relent, numerous attacks launched from the front of the peloton almost immediately. With the bunch travelling at an estimated 67kmh, however, most were hauled back within seconds.
But a four-man break did go clear containing Britain’s David Millar (Garmin-Sharp), Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEDGE), former Team Sky rider Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM), and Julien El Fares (Sojasun).
Cavendish punctured with just 52km remaining, but worked his way swiftly back to the bunch, expertly drafting the team cars and flying straight past his waiting team-mate, Peter Vellits, who proved unable to catch the Manxman’s wheel.
Some 10km later, and the breakaway had built a lead of 24 seconds. Argos-Shimano moved to the front 40km from home, signalling their intention that lead sprinter, Kittel, would seek to add to his hat-trick of stage wins. Cavendish’s Omega Pharma-QuickStep troops swarmed around them, and Team Sky were prominent, determined that Froome would not fall at the last.
Just 31.5km from home, and with the bunch only 15 seconds behind, Flecha, a cobbled Classics specialist, unhitched, and Millar provided the cameras and tens of thousands massed on the Élysées with an extended view of his effortless style, resting his arms on the handlebar in time trial mode on the tarmac sections of the lap.
Six kilometres later, and Millar had extended his lead to 25 seconds, an impressive feat given the pace of the pursuing bunch. Jeremy Roy (FDJ) moved from its head to begin a lone pursuit of the Scotsman and give the home fans reason to cheer. Roy caught his quarry with ease, and as the fading Millar slipped back to the bunch, he was passed by the trio of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Bram Tankink (Belkin) and Manual Quinziato (BMC Racing).
With 15km to go, the trio held a slender advantage of just 15 seconds, with Cannondale Pro Cycling fighting for position at the head of the bunch alongside Cavendish’s OPQS team, and Kittel’s Argos-Shimano troops. Peter Sagan clearly had designs on a second visit to the podium, in addition to the ceremonial collection of his second consecutive green jersey.
Just 10km from home, the sprinters’ teams, sensing the danger ahead, began to work together and the gap fell to 13 seconds. After another 2.5km, contact was made and the battle among the outriders of the quick men began in earnest.
As the bell rang to signal the final lap, Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas hit the front with Froome tucked safely on his wheel. Saxo-Tinkoff, surprisingly, were the next to mass at the front, perhaps riding for sprinter Daniele Bennati.
With 2.5km to go, OPQS finally took control, led by Gert Steegmans and Sylvain Chavanel, with Cavendish fourth wheel. Chavanel took up the pace and led them from the tunnel with Orica- GreenEDGE threatening.
Cavendish’s young team-mate, Michal Kwiatowski, briefly the white jersey holder, led his team on to the Rue de Rivoli, with Cavendish well positioned but with Sagan on his wheel and Greipel in close attendance.
As the supporting cast fell away, the three stars of world road sprinting took centre stage. Kittel launched early, and by an act of supreme will and power held off a rampaging Greipel and Cavendish, who seemed still to be approaching top speed.
It was the finish this magnificent hundredth Tour de France deserved, and a second consecutive victory for a British rider racing for a British team.
Tour de France 2013 – stage 21 – result
1) Marcel Kittel (GER) – Argos-Shimano – 3.06.14
2) Andre Greipel (GER) – Lotto Belisol – ST
3) Mark Cavendish (GBR) – Omega Pharma-QuickStep
4) Peter Sagan (SLO) – Cannondale Pro Cycling
5) Roberto Ferrari (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
6) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha
7) Kevin Reza (FRA) – Europcar
8) Yohann Gene (FRA) – Team Europcar
9) Daniele Bennati (ITA) – Saxo-Tinkoff
10) Antonibili Fischer (BRZ) – FDJ
1) Christopher Froome (GBR) – Team Sky – 83.56.40
2) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +4.20
3) Joaquin Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +5.04
4) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Saxo-Tinkoff +6.27
5) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Saxo-Tinkoff +7.27
6) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling + 11.42
7) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +12.17
8) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +15.26
9) Daniel Navarro (ESP) – Cofidis +15.52
10) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +17.39