Marcel Kittel took his third stage win in the 2014 Tour de France: but had to work for it

Unsurprisingly, Marcel Kittel won the fourth stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Surprisingly, however, it wasn’t straightforward at all.

In both Harrogate and London, Kittel had looked unmatchable in the final 200 metres. But the German sprinter made heavy weather of the final dash to the line in Lille – he looked to lack the acceleration necessary to match Alexander Kristoff’s bold early jump, and he only managed to overhaul the Norwegian with metres to go. Conversely, he only just held off the even later charge of French champion Arnaud Demare.

Kittel has now won three stages, just one short of his impressive total of four from last year. In 2013, it took 21 stages to take those four wins, but paradoxically he looks more vulnerable after his hat trick than he did before it. His rivals will have taken heart from their beating today.

Behind Kittel, Kristoff and Demare, Peter Sagan carried on his relentless collection of green jersey points by taking fourth place, Bryan Coquard got his third top five of the race, and Andre Greipel and Mark Renshaw continued to look ordinary by coming sixth and seventh, a poor return for the considerable amount of work put in by their respective teams, Lotto and Omega Pharma. Of these riders, Kristoff, Demare and Coquard look most likely to threaten Kittel’s dominance in the two sprint stages left before the mountains start on Saturday.

Each stage is different, of course, but there have been certain tactical similarities in the three sprint stages so far. Stage four mainly unfolded in a manner as predictable as a key change in an X-Factor song. There was an early break (containing, even more predictably, Thomas Voeckler). The bunch, mainly driven by the Giant and Lotto teams, let the gap go out to a parsimonious maximum of three minutes. And the gap started slowly coming down from 100 kilometres out.

Voeckler’s chances of winning were zero, although keen students of the sport might have noticed that on this day in 2009 in the stage to Perpignan, an early break went, the final survivor of which somehow managed to hold off the fast-charging bunch by seven seconds on the line. That final survivor was Thomas Voeckler.

There’s a relatively new trend in the early sprint stages, which dates back to around 2011 and 2012, of GC teams keeping their leaders more and more towards the front of the bunch into the finale. Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins both benefitted hugely from this tactic in their Tour-winning years, and it’s been picked up by Tinkoff and Garmin, who led the bunch through the suburbs of Lille, as they did in London yesterday, deep into the final 10 kilometres. This does a huge favour to the sprinters’ teams.

Garmin and Tinkoff weren’t the only teams riding similar tactics to the day before. Omega Pharma, undeterred by the failure of starting an early lead-out in London (and, indeed, in Harrogate) made their move at five kilometres to go, putting an impressive eight-man line of riders at the front of the bunch. Aesthetically, it was perfect. Tactically, it was suspect, and provided the Giant team with a visible target to aim for when they made their own attack at three kilometres to go, just as they did yesterday, and in stage one.

The only difference with the previous two sprints was that two Katusha riders, Kristoff and Alexander Porsev, had managed to infiltrate the line of five Giant riders, and they took advantage of the free ride to the front into the final kilometre. The Omega train disintegrated, leaving Renshaw on his own against Kristoff, Kittel and Sagan. Kristoff’s jump almost caught Kittel out, but the German dredged up one last surge in the final 20 metres.

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Omega Pharma and Lotto need to try something new if Kittel is not to keep adding to his tally of stage wins.

Marcel Kittel wins stage four of the 2014 Tour de France

Marcel Kittel wins stage four of the 2014 Tour de France

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Three wins out of four stages is an impressive achievement, but a little look through the history books demonstrates just how impressive Marcel Kittel’s Tour has been so far.

No rider has won three of the first four road stages of the Tour de France since the early 1900s. Francois Faber won stages two, three and four in 1909 (and the next two, as well, which Kittel might find beyond him), while Rene Pottier won stages two, three and four in 1906. Freddy Maertens did win three out of the first four stages in 1976, but two of those were time trials. For Kittel to have won three out of the first four in the modern era is an unprecedented achievement.

Furthermore, no sprinter in the post-war era has won the first three flat road stages of any Tour. Not Mark Cavendish, not Mario Cipollini, not Alessandro Petacchi, not Robbie McEwen, not Freddy Maertens. Even when Cavendish won six stages, in the 2009 Tour, he got caught out by Thomas Voeckler’s escape in the third flat stage that year.

The good news for Kittel is that there are still four, possibly five, sprint stages left. In spite of his smaller winning margin today, he’ll start all of them as the favourite.