Ed Pickering dissects Thursday's Tour de France stage
A fourth sprint, a fourth victory by a tall, broad-shouldered German. But while events today unfolded in a similar pattern to the previous three bunch sprints, with Omega Pharma imposing themselves on the lead-out, the identity of the winner in Reims was different. Andre Greipel finally unshackled himself from the bad luck, indifferent form and sub-par technique that had so far given him nothing more than a distant view of compatriot Marcel Kittel’s back, several riders ahead, as he crosses the line in first.
Greipel had to work for his win. With pilot fish Greg Henderson out of the race after crashing two days ago, he improvised his own lead-out in a chaotic finale, spending time in both Alexander Kristoff and Mark Renshaw’s slipstreams before jumping out and executing a sprint that looked to be one part power, one part speed and one part psychological liberation. There was the sense that Greipel would have ridden through a brick wall to get to the finish line first, given his frustrations over the first five days of the Tour.
Marcel Kittel, the winner of the first three sprints, disappeared out of the back of the front group with just over a kilometre to go. It was initially reported that he had a puncture or a mechanical, but the truth emerged later, in a statement on his team’s website: a simple, common-or-garden cock-up with the Giant lead-out train. The riders lost each other in the chaos of the run-in to Reims, and by the time they’d organised themselves and found each other, there were only a few kilometres left, and they were too far back. Rather than waste energy trying to move up, with the road running out too fast, Kittel sat up and drifted out of the back.
The unbeatable German turned out to be beatable after all. There’s nobody in the peloton at the moment who can ride up the finishing straight as fast as Kittel right now, so the teams didn’t put themselves in a position to allow him to do that. They targeted a weaker spot instead – the other riders on his team. Expect more chaotic finales in subsequent sprints. Giant were also left to shoulder the pacemaking at the front of the peloton for virtually the whole stage. It’s a general unwritten rule that the yellow jersey team will control the first half of a flat stage, while the sprinters’ teams ride at the front for the second half, but Giant were on the front all day. The message from the other teams was clear: you’ve got the best sprinter, you work for a sprint.
However, it wasn’t just a case of making Giant and Kittel lose the stage. Greipel won it well – he held his position well through several roundabouts and pinchpoints. Then, as riders unleashed their own sprints in the final 300 metres, picked a perfect path through them until there was only clear air in front of him.
The Tour has thrown a lot at the peloton in the last week. Sprints, hills, cobbles and rain might normally be more a feature of the Spring Classics than the Tour, but after a run of tightly-controlled Tours, race organisers ASO seem keen to embrace the anarchy and unpredictability of the one-day events. Or at least the possibility of their anarchy and unpredictability – apart from the bedlam of the cobbled stage, the race has still been tightly controlled by the sprinters’ teams.
Today’s challenge was the gusting wind of the plains north of Reims. It never quite attacked the bunch from the right angle to really break things up, but instead it exercised an insidious erosion at the back, with groups of riders dropping off in dribs and drabs in the final hour. Among the riders at the front of the peloton, a real race almost broke out, but each time it seemed that somebody might dive over to the gutter and force an echelon, they seemed to relent – there was a lot of froth, as if a tall glass of the local champagne had been filled too fast, but it didn’t last very long.
Omega Pharma were most at home in the conditions, and about 13 kilometres out, they really ramped up the pace, Tony Martin, Niki Terpstra and Michal Kwiatkowski rotating smoothly in a diagonal line, eroding the bunch to about half of its original size. Katusha and Cannondale both made attacks to replace them at the front, but two and a half kilometres out, the order was: Omega Pharma, Cannondale, Cannondale, Omega Pharma (Kwiatkowski), then Trek (Fabian Cancellara). There was the tantalising possibility that Cancellara would go for a long one, as he did on stage one, narrowly missing the win, and successfully seven years ago to the day in Compiegne.
But instead, Kwiatkowski, wearing the white jersey (although lying second in the young riders’ competition, to Peter Sagan) attacked, under the red kite at a kilometre to go. The strength of his initial jump and the foreshortening of the television camera angle made it look like he was going to win, but all he did was give Katusha’s Alexander Porsev, on the front of the bunch, somebody to aim for. Porsev closed Kwiatkowski down with 400 metres left, then everybody seemed to jump at once. Kevin Reza went for it, dropping the man he was supposed to be leading out, Bryan Coquard. Alexander Kristoff jumped. Mark Renshaw, for Omega Pharma, sprinted. Sagan, as he always does, got involved. And moving swiftly and smoothly through them all: Andre Greipel.
Greipel’s won at least one stage at the Tour every year since 2011, and his total is now six, one behind Kittel. The sprints at the Tour, hitherto predictable, just got exciting.