Germany’s Marcel Kittel underlined his status as the top sprinter at the 100th Tour de France, beating Britain’s Mark Cavendish to achieve victory on the crash-marred 12th stage on Thursday.
Kenyan-born Briton Chris Froome of Team Sky finished just behind to protect his 3min 25sec lead over Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and 3:54 advantage over two-time race winner Alberto Contador.
Froome did well to stay clear of two crashes in the closing kilometres, and despite the flat terrain, he admitted: “It seems like there’s no such thing as an easy day on the Tour de France. It was a hard day out there. “Every time I cross the finish line there’s a little sigh of relief.”
As Froome took another step towards an anticipated yellow jersey battle in the Alps beginning Sunday, Kittel matched compatriot Erik Zabel’s record for the most number of wins by a German in a single edition.
He also won the race opener and stage 10, when Cavendish came third having caused a crash which brought down Kittel’s Argos teammate Tom Veelers.
“I didn’t know that! But I’m proud of it,” said Kittel. “Today it was great to beat Cavendish in a straightforward sprint.”
Kittel, though, had one less opponent to deal with for the bunch gallop to the finish after compatriot Andre Greipel (Lotto) was delayed by a crash which brought down several of his teammates inside the last two kilometres.
Greg Henderson, Jurgen Roelandts and Marcel Sieberg all hit the tarmac and although they escaped serious injury the pile-up delayed Greipel sufficiently to end his sprint hopes.
Froome speaks up
Race leader Froome came to the defence of Cavendish and hit out at the spectator who threw urine at the British sprint star.
It came a day after Cavendish was blamed for a collision that sent Argos rider Tom Veelers crashing to the ground in Saint-Malo.
“It is disappointing to hear about one individual like that,” he said. “That’s one of the beauties of our sport. Anyone can come and watch at the side of the road and enjoy the excitement. But to do something disrespectful like that, that’s really sad. It ruins the whole atmosphere.”
Persona non grata
The Hague: Cavendish is no longer welcome at the Boxmeer Criterium in the Netherlands. The race organisers have withdrawn his name from the list of starters. The decision follows the crash in which Dutchman Tom Veelers fell in the finishing straight. Cavendish was accused of knocking Argos rider Veelers off balance with a shoulder during the sprint for the line, although he was given the benefit of the doubt by race commissaires.