Marcel Kittel compared winning on The Mall to triumphing on the Champs Elysees as the German's Tour de France sprint supremacy continued in London yesterday.
Kittel, of Giant-Shimano, won a second stage in three attempts on English soil as the Tour's excursion across the channel concluded, this stage following a hugely successful Grand Depart in Yorkshire.
The powerful German was delivered brilliantly by his team in front of Buckingham Palace to claim a sixth stage win in two editions of the Tour. "Emotionally, this win is close to the one I got on the Champs-Elysees in Paris last year," Kittel said. "Winning on The Mall: that's what I dreamed of but, even though I had a chance to make it come true, it's not something I could take for granted. It's really fantastic to win here. On the finishing line, the crowd was fantastic. I love the atmosphere."
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The 155-kilometre route from Cambridge was the third and final stage on English soil ahead of the race's return to France and was always destined to end in a sprint finish. The peloton raced near Mark Cavendish's Essex home, but the partisan crowd were deprived of the 25-times stage winner's presence by his withdrawal with a shoulder injury sustained on stage one in Harrogate.
Kittel won four stages to Cavendish's two in the 2013 Tour and, in a regal setting, again proved he is the current sprint king, with Peter Sagan (Cannondale) second and Cavendish's Omega Pharma-QuickStep team-mate Mark Renshaw third. The Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who won in Sheffield on day two, finished in the bunch to retain the overall leader's yellow jersey, with defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) fifth overall after safely negotiating a tricky first three days.
After glorious weather in Yorkshire, the first rainfall of the race arrived after the riders had passed by the Olympic Park in East London. The day's breakaway pair, NetApp-Endura's Jan Barta and Jean-Marc Bideau (Bretagne-Seche Environnement), were swept up in the final 6km and Kittel's Giant-Shimano squad led through Parliament Square and along Birdcage Walk.
Andre Greipel's Lotto-Belisol squad took to the front outside Buckingham Palace, but then Kittel's team-mates took over once more and no-one could match the German's power. "This was one of the fastest sprints I've ever done," Kittel added. "My job was 500 metres long but the biggest fight was already over. My boys had done a great job before that."
Debate raged last summer whether Kittel had surpassed Cavendish as the world's leading sprinter. Cavendish will not be able to challenge his rival after crashing out in pursuit of a first yellow jersey of his career in his mother's home town.
It means that, for the first time since he exited the 2008 Tour voluntarily to prepare for the Beijing Olympics, Cavendish will not reach Paris, where the race concludes on July 27.
The riders flew to France on four chartered aeroplanes from London City Airport yesterday evening. Whether the Tour's vast fleet of support vehicles make it across the channel depends, at least in part, on a fully-functioning Eurotunnel after chaos caused by a power failure earlier in the day.
The stage marked the conclusion of a Grand Depart labelled the best yet and witnessed by millions. Christian Prudhomme, the the Tour director, estimated that five million people had lined the Yorkshire stages from Leeds to Harrogate and from York to Sheffield.
On a regular working day, the roads of Cambridgeshire, Essex, by the Olympic Park in East London and in Westminster, were lined with extraordinary crowds which are surely only likely to hasten the return of the race across La Manche.
"It was a good day for us and we're three days into the Tour now," said said Froome, who was 28th on Stage 3, one place ahead of Nibali. "It's quite a good feeling. We did get a little bit wet in the final but I suppose it wouldn't have been a British start without a bit of rain."
Froome's chief lieutenant, Richie Porte, expects a different welcome for Team Sky in Tuesday's 163.5km fourth stage from Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to Lille. "The very vocal home support has been absolutely unbelievable," the Australian said. "I don't expect that in France. It's going to be a little more hostile there. Yorkshire was probably something that us guys will never experience again but for a working day London was absolutely incredible too."
Froome is already thinking ahead, particularly to tomorrow's fifth stage across the cobbles of northern France. "That's definitely going to be quite a shake-up," he said.