Tour de France 2017
Kittel, the 29-year-old from the Belgian Quick-Step Floors team, cemented his grip on the green jersey with what he described as a “perfect” performance.
Few will argue with that assessment after Kittel powered through on the home straight to beat Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) for the 14th Tour triumph of his career.
Australia’s Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and Britain’s Dan McLay (Fortuneo-Oscaro) completed the top five as the likes of Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) all toiled once again in the wake of a true master in action.
“Sometimes when you’re on your top level in a sprint it’s like a game of Tetris,” said Kittel, who now leads Matthews by 335 points to 202 points in the green jersey standings. “On the last days I’ve always got the right gaps, never made a mistake and all the sprinting lines were perfect – I could jump from wheel to wheel and it’s incredible.”
After another day during which Kittel’s Quick-Step Floors team-mates kept control of matters from start to finish, Kittel was quick to praise those who had paved the way for his latest success.
“It’s really nice to give the team another victory because Julien [Vermote] worked today, Philippe Gilbert worked today, Jack Bauer worked today. They are all champions and they are killing it for me. I’m speechless.”
With five sprint victories out of five, Kittel has been the stand-out performer of the 104th edition of the race. “I’ve got the legs, I’ve got the mind for it and, yeah, it’s perfect at the moment,” he said. “It’s not over yet – but I’ve used all my chances so far and it can’t get worse from here.”
Kittel’s victory did not go entirely to script, however, after lone leader Maciej Bodnar of Bora-Hansgrohe held on until the final three-hundred metres before being swept up quite agonisingly by the rampaging peloton.
The powerful Pole Bodnar was the last-man standing from a trio of riders who broke clear from the outset of the 203.5km stage from Eymet in the Dordogne and built up a maximum lead of more than five minutes.
Fellow escapees, the Italian Marco Marcato (UAE Team Emirates) – who won the intermediate sprint – and Belgian Frederik Backaert (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) – who crested the only categorised climb in pole position – were swept up inside the final 20km after Bodnar rolled the dice and rode clear.
On a day where blustery winds, straight roads and general doziness meant riders had to keep on their toes, Spanish former double Tour winner Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and last year’s runner-up, Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale), were among those who hit the deck in innocuous-looking crashes.
While Contador and Bardet could ride on others were less lucky: Italy’s Dario Cataldo – a key mountain lieutenant for Astana’s Fabio Aru – was forced out of the Tour with a suspected broken wrist after a fall in the feedzone which also toppled the Dane Jakob Fuglsang.
Britain’s Chris Froome (Team Sky) nevertheless finished safely in the pack to retain his yellow jersey on the eve of two testing days in the Pyrenees. The three-time champion leads Aru by 18 seconds in the general classification, with Frenchman Bardet in third place at 51 seconds.
“It was a bit more nervous today,” Froome, after his 50th day in yellow, told the media. “There was a threat of crosswinds but not enough to shake it up – but it was one of those days where you have to stay up and out of trouble, and I must thank by team-mates for doing just that and staying focused.”
Asked if he would attack in the forthcoming mountain stages, Froome replied: “I don’t need to at this point, but let’s see on the road.”
Thursday’s 214.5km Stage 12 from Pau to Peyragudes includes six categorised climbs – including the HC ascent of the Port de Bales and the second of three summit finishes of the race.