Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) underlined his status as the sprinter deluxe of the 2014 Tour de France by powering to his second stage win in three days as the UK bid au revoir to the race on The Mall.
Kittel outsprinted Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) to win stage one in Harrogate and, two days later, the German beat the Slovak to the line once again, with Mark Renshaw, promoted as Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s sprinter following the withdrawal of Mark Cavendish, third.
But the result only tells half the story, with Kittel perfectly delivered to the finish by his Giant-Shimano leadout train, and the 26-year-old subsequently easing to victory in front of Buckingham Palace in what was an ominous display of form, with Sagan stuck to his rival’s wheel in what was effectively a sprint for second.
And Kittel paid tribute to the huge crowds at the finish of what was the final stage of the Grand Départ.
“Today was one of the best finish lines I have ever seen, with the amount of people lining the roads it was incredible,” said Kittel.
“The team did another great job today and the finish was a perfect finish for me. The coaches had looked at the stage earlier in the year and with their information we knew what to expect – this helped a lot today and meant we could react easily when we needed to.
“The rain made things a bit tricky in the final stages and it was difficult to stay in front, so it was important that we kept the sprint formation together. We did this and it worked out perfectly.
“The noise at the finish was incredible and it feels amazing to get a second win with another great team effort.”
Meanwhile, overall leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) finished safely in the bunch to maintain his two second advantage over Sagan, while Chris Froome (Team Sky) also stayed out of trouble and remains fifth overall.
The stage in detail
The race moved south after two spectacular days in Yorkshire and, just as they had in Leeds and York, thousands packed into Cambridge for the start of the stage, and entire towns and villages emptied onto the roadside to cheer the peloton for the final leg of the 2014 Grand Départ.
Stage three followed a pan-flat 155km route through Cambridgeshire, Essex and into London, and with a bunch sprint all but guaranteed, offered some respite for the peloton after a tough second day in Yorkshire, where a relentlessly hilly parcours and an enthralling stage played out like a one-day Classics ended with Italian national champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) claiming a slender solo victory and with it the yellow jersey.
Nibali, green jersey holder and King of the Mountains leader Cyril Lemoine led the peloton as it made its way through the neutralised zone in Cambridge to the official start, where Jan Barta and Jean-Marc Bideau of NetApp-Endura and Bretagne-Seche, two of the teams handed wildcard entries to the 2014 Tour, attacked from the flag to form the day’s break.
Barta and Bideau both started the day ten minutes and 31 seconds down in the general classification and so the peloton was happy to let the duo ride clear to quickly establish an advantage of more than four minutes as they entered Saffron Walden.
With the formula for the day established, the peloton could settle into the familiar pattern of a Tour de France sprint stage, with Astana, the team of maillot jaune Nibali, setting the early pace at the front of the peloton before the teams of German sprint duo Kittel (Giant-Shimano) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) moved to the head of the bunch to share the work and keep the break’s lead in check.
A touch of wheels saw Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Jan Bakelants, who won stage two of the 2013 Tour de France in Corsica, and Bretagne-Seche’s Florian Vachon hit the deck but both riders were both soon back on the road and safely tucked into the peloton.
With London approaching, Barta and Bideau’s lead began to fall and the pair held an advantage of just over two minutes as the intermediate sprint came into view in Epping Forest with 47km remaining.
That prompted Cannondale Pro Cycling and Europcar to move to the front of the peloton, working on behalf of Sagan, in search of a third successive green jersey, and French sprinter Bryan Coquard. Bideau won the two-up sprint from the break but that still left 15 points available for the first rider across the line from the peloton and Coquard, a highly-rated 22-year-old who won omnium silver on the track at the London 2012 Olympic Games, comfortably outpaced Sagan, and perhaps signal his intent for the rest of the Tour de France having also finish fourth in the bunch sprint.
That injection of pace saw Barta and Bideau’s lead temporarily drop to one minute and 15 seconds but, with the peloton not wanting to make the catch too early, it crept back up to just over two minutes as they left Epping and continued the journey through London’s urban sprawl and into the centre of the capital, with the fields of Essex swapped for the skyscrapers of London by the Tour’s television helicopter.
The crowds continued to grow, sometimes ten deep through London’s suburbs. Many riders warned fans to stay out of the road after a number of near-misses in Yorkshire and while the country’s narrow roads had been replaced by London’s wide thoroughfares, Team Sky’s David Lopez clipped a spectator, standing in the road taking a photograph, and the ricochet effect saw a handful of riders crash, including Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) and Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), who was also brought down by Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) on stage one.
The sprint teams, led by Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol squad, came to the fore with 25km to go, with the Olympic Park and the ‘Pringle’ velodrome providing a spectacular backdrop, and with the break’s lead now under two minutes as the pace rose considerably.
The British summer can rarely be relied on but it almost looked like it would stay dry for the entire three days of the Grand Départ before rain began to fall with 16km to go, making London’s oil-slicked roads treacherous. The break’s advantage now stood at a little over a minute, though at this point only Lotto-Belisol and Astana were visible at the head of the peloton.
Barta is a two-time Czech national time trial champion and the 29-year-old set about emptying the tank on the approach to The Mall, legs pumping and mouth wide open, with Bideau paying for his efforts earlier in the day and struggling at times to hold his breakaway companion’s wheel.
Tinkoff-Saxo moved to the front of the peloton as the finish neared, looking to keep two-time champion Alberto Contador safe but also potentially tee-up their sprinter, Daniele Bennati. By now Barta and Bideau’s lead was falling with almost every passing metre and the pair held an advantage of just 30 seconds as they passed under the 10km banner.
Back in the peloton, Lotto-Belisol began to dictate proceedings at the head of the bunch, working on behalf of Greipel, eager to sixth Tour de France stage win to his palmares, but the 31-year-old later sat up in the bunch sprint and finished a lowly 23rd. Giant-Shimano, Cannondale Pro Cycling and Omega Pharma-QuickStep also became more visible through London’s financial district of Canary Wharf.
The catch is made
Bideau cracked and lost Barta’s wheel as he climbed out of the Limehouse Link tunnel but, with Bideau swallowed up by the peloton, the bunch also now had the leader in sight, with Barta’s advantage standing at just a handful of seconds before the catch was finally made after a valiant attempt by the 29-year-old to stay clear.
Though the rain had stopped, the roads remained greasy and the super-fast sweeping corners of the final 10km required nerves of steel, and Russian national champion Alexander Porsev, looking after Milan-San Remo winner Alexander Kristoff, almost came a cropper.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep then moved to the front, though ominously, Giant-Shimano remained sheltered just off the front of the peloton, waiting to send their troops into battle and finally moving forward and taking control with 3.5km to go.
Huge crowds roared the peloton on as the sprinters’ leadout trains passed Big Ben and while a crash brought down a number of riders in the middle of the peloton with 1.7km to go, the sprinters and their leadout men stayed out of trouble as they swept past Buckingham Palace and through the final corner.
And it was from there that Kittel, perfectly shepherded by his team through the chaotic finale, launched his sprint from the wheel of leadout man Tom Veelers to win his fifth Tour de France stage, with Sagan not even attempting to come out of the slipstream created by the 6’2″German’s huge frame.
Tour de France 2014: stage three – result
1) Marcel Kittel (GER) – Giant-Shimano – 3:38:30
2) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale – same time
3) Mark Renshaw (AUS) – Omega Pharma-QuickStep
4) Bryan Coquard (FRA) – Europcar
5) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha
6) Danny Van Poppel (NED) – Trek Factory Racing
7) Heinrich Haussler (AUS) – IAM Cycling
8) José Joaquin Rojas Gil (SPA) – Movistar
9) Romain Feillu (FRA) – Bretagne-Seche
10) Daniel Oss (ITA) – BMC Racing
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana 13:31:13
2) Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale +2″
3) Michael Albasini (SWI) – Orica-GreenEDGE – same time
4) Greg Van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing
5) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky
6) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling
7) Alberto Contador (SPA) – Tinkoff-Saxo
8) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar
9) Jurgen Van Den Broeck (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol
10) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r La Mondiale