Marcel Kittel scored his 11th win of the season and the 34th for Etixx-Quick Step at the end of a long day in the saddle on the fourth stage of the Tour de France today.
As expected, the longest stage of the race had a calm beginning, with just four riders making it in the break – Alexis Gougeard (AG2R), Markel Irizar (Trek-Segafredo), Oliver Naesen (IAM Cycling) and Andreas Schillinger (Bora-Argon 18) – and an explosive finale, which saw Kittel take the win by a whisker ahead of Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie).
The 237.5 kilometres fourth stage from Saumur to Limoges (which returned as host town after a 16-year hiatus) was all about the final kilometre, an uphill one with a 6% average gradient in the last 600 meters, which meant the favourites had to be well-positioned in the pack, have enough power in the legs for the tough hill and find the perfect moment to start their effort, aware that timing could prove decisive in the outcome.
After Julien Vermote once again spent countless kilometres at the head of the peloton in the second part of the day, Etixx – Quick-Step played it perfectly in the closing kilometres, hitting the front with around 1200 meters to go, just as things began to heat up.
Tour de Suisse points jersey winner Maximiliano Richeze was the last man in front of Marcel Kittel, who opened his sprint with 300 metres left and took the centre of the road, charging towards the line.
The 28-year-old managed to hold off all his opponents, including Coquard, for one of the smallest winning margins seen by the Tour de France in recent history.
“It wasn’t easy for the team and me after the last three days. The ambitions and expectations were high and the pressure was there, especially after getting so many wins in the first part of the season. Yesterday, after the stage, we analysed the finale, talked about our mistakes in a positive way and everyone learned from it. I tried to motivate the boys and today they did a marvelous job. We were there when it mattered, I was brought up in the right position and had a perfect timing”, said Kittel, who now has 14 Grand Tour victories to his name.
By coming out on top on Tuesday, Kittel surpassed legendary countryman Rudi Altig in most Tour de France stage victories for Germany. He now sits in third overall in an all-time ranking with 9 successes behind Andre Greipel and Erik Zabel, and he also became the first rider to get wins in two Grand Tours this season, after sprinting to victory in the Nijmegen and Arnhem Giro d’Italia stages: “I am super happy and it’s great to return to the Tour de France with such a victory. I knew since yesterday that my legs are strong and wanted to win for the team, who was really incredible. We still have some opportunities ahead in the race, but first we want to enjoy this day.”