Tour de France 2017
In a nail-biting conclusion to the 213.5km stage through the Burgundy wine region, Quick-StepFloors sprinter Kittel underlined his green credentials as the fastest man in the peloton by narrowly beating Dimension Data’s Boasson Hagen – thanks to a late lunge at the eleventh hour.
Benefiting from a superb lead-out, Boasson Hagen had looked destined give his Dimension Data team a lift following the set-back of Mark Cavendish’s withdrawal on Tuesday. But a trademark surge from Kittel saw the 29-year-old German secure a twelfth career win on the Tour and draw level with Erik Zabel as his country’s leading stage winner.
Race officials later said that Kittel’s winning margin over Boasson Hagen had been just 0.0003 seconds.
Australia’s Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Norway’s Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and Germany’s John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) completed the top five in a thrilling finale.
French national champion Arnaud Demare (FDJ) could only take eleventh place – behind the likes of Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and old foe Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) – en route to conceding the green jersey to hat-trick hero Kittel.
“I really had no clue if I won or not,” Kittel told reporters. “At 150 metres I was with Boasson Hagen and we came around the corner and I thought it was still 200 metres to go. Then I just had to pray that the door opened on the right-hand side so that I could pass him – and it was just enough.”
Kittel now leads Demare by 15 points in the points classification and takes back the green jersey he wore for one day following his opening victory in Stage 2 at Liege last Sunday.
Asked about drawing level with Zabel, Kittel said: “It’s an incredible success, I’m really, really proud of that. I’m in great shape, I’m super happy that the team supported me so well today.
“We did a good lead-out, we believed in this victory, and it’s just crazy. Being back here in the Tour and to already have three stage wins – it’s incredible, I’m just so happy.”
Four riders – Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac), Manuele Mori (UAE Team Emirates), Maxime Bouet (Fortuneo-Oscaro) and Yohann Gene (Direct Energie) – broke clear of the pack from the outset of a long, hot stage in which the mercury pushed the mid-30s.
The break built up a maximum lead of four minutes but were kept on a tight leash by the teams of the sprinters – most notably Kittel’s Quick-Step Floors team-mate Julien Vermote, who rode on the front of the peloton for practically the entire stage.
Frenchman Bouet crested the summit of the only categorised climb of the day in pole position before the break – having amassed more than 200km out ahead – were swept up with just three kilometres to go.
The expected blustery conditions around the famous vineyards of the area never materialised and the attentive teams of the general classification riders soon gave way to those of the sprinters ahead of the showpiece finale.
Boasson Hagen was teed up nicely by his Dimension Data team, but Kittel showed the killer instinct that makes him a clear favourite to keep the green jersey all the way to Paris. With three victories in the bag, the German looks certain to match – or surpass – his record tally of four wins in each of the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Tour.
Britain’s Chris Froome (Team Sky) finished safely in the pack to retain his 12-second lead over team-mate Geraint Thomas in the overall standings, with Italy’s Fabio Aru, the Stage 5 winner at La Planche des Bells Filles, a further two seconds back in third.
The likes of Richie Porte (BMC), Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and Astana’s Aru – all lurking within 54 seconds of Froome in the standings – will look to pile the pressure on Sky’s defending champion during the forthcoming weekend in the Jura mountains.
Saturday’s 187.5km Stage 8 features three categorised climbs ahead of a testing approach to the finish at Station des Rousses, while Sunday’s showpiece Stage 9 features three hors categorie climbs, including the fearsome Mont du Chat, ahead of a fast finish in Chambery.