Race Report: The first day back in France looked a little different; there was a lot less spectators at the side of the road than in England. But at the stage end, after a crazy fast last 20 kilometres, everything became familiar again as Marcel Kittel took his third stage win.
Despite Katusha’s Norwegian Primavera winner, Alex Kristoff receiving a beautiful lead out from Russian champion team mate Alex Porsev; Arnaud Demare (F des J) finding his legs back in his homeland and Giant’s train derailing in the finale – after perhaps picking it up a little too early – it was a hat trick for Giant’s German giant locomotive Marcel Kittel on the damp and technical roads of Lille.
Kristoff went early after a great work from his team to get him up there – but Kittel was again too strong.
Kristoff took second as he banged on the ‘bars with Demare third.
Peter Sagan came down in the streets of Lille but blasted back up through the length of the convoy and peloton to take fourth and consolidate his points lead.
Never say die little Frenchman Bryan Coquard was yet again in the mix to take fifth and Lotto’s German Champion Andre Greipel in sixth spot.
If Stage Three started – and continued until the last 10 K – like a wet lettuce, the same could not be said of Stage Four.
Tommy Voeckler (Europcar & France) practically rode over the top of Christian Prudhomme’s lead car to make the first break even as the deneutralised flag dropped.
With just Cofidis’s Luis Angel Maté Mardones for company a day of close ups of TV’s tongue looked in prospect.
Then, just minutes later, Chris Froome touched wheels and bit the dust, hopping to his feet whilst clutching his wrist – it hurt.
Team mates – including Bernie Eisel dropped back for the 2013 Tour winner as Astana knocked off the gas to allow Froome to get back on and then receive medical attention from the doctor’s car.
Voeckler didn’t ease back though and he and Maté had two minutes very quickly.
Sunshine, flat roads, freshly harvested fields, clusters rather than battalions of fans roadside, Tommy off the front – le Tour has come home.
Two minutes became three with Astana riding tempo for the maillot jaune, Giant doing the same for Drago – sorry, Kittel and Lotto for Greipel; along narrow, muddy lanes, through high green banks, alongside thick forest, past lush fields, through sleepy hamlets with lots of red pan tiles on display.
The break’s lead may have leaped to three minutes quickly – but every second after that was hard to find.
The Cote de Campagnette, fourth cat. 34 K in and Mate takes it – that was arranged earlier so as the one point on offer stays with Cofidis.
Their Lemoine is in polka dots with six points; TV only has two – but better safe than sorry.
The two fugitives ride under a big grey sky towards a distant horizon across softly rolling fields of grain past concrete water towers – as the gap between the break and the peloton sticks at around the three-and-a-half minute mark.
The two up the road have cottoned on that they’re not going to get much more rope and have dropped into ‘cruise’ rather than ‘torture’ mode.
Astana are riding tempo – but it’s not a savage pace as Giant and Lotto lend a hand.
Back in the day it used to be that the sprinter’s team which did the most work in pulling the break back was given the clearest run at the line – but not now; with GreenEDGE in particular more than happy to let the other teams graft then hi-jack them in the finale.
Inside 100 K to go and Lotto and Giant are taking no chances with the gap at 2:30 – Astana aren’t complaining.
The peloton is gutter to gutter, the gap at around two minutes – it stays that way for a long way . . .
Mont Cassel and the sprint at 92 K; it looks like Maté’s cassette has packed up as he pedals fresh air – the Spaniard changes bikes, Tommy takes the points. Sagan takes third spot on one leg around a minute later.
It looks like it’s splitting on the cobbled descent of Cassel as Cannondale pile it on – it’s a long, long line.
BMC take it up – and it has split, Sagan marshals his troops; Lotto contribute and Purito Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain) and Kwiatkowski (Quick-Step & Poland) are two of a considerable number of riders caught out and left behind.
Quick-Step manage to haul it all together as the peloton eases – no one wants a death chase the day before the pave of Stage Five.
Maté succumbs to the chasers with a front wheel deflation and all it’s down to Tommy ‘en seule’ who’s got the gap back over a minute as they approach Mont Noir, 117 K in.
Paris-Roubaix winner, Nike Terpstra (Quick-Step & The Netherlands) takes a tumble and has to chase hard – he was saving those watts for tomorrow.
Tommy lurches up the fourth Cat. ascent through big crowds and one point for the K o M, clicks up the gears and goes crazy on the descent.
But we still have an hour of racing to go . . .
Terpstra changes bikes – it was all so comfortable in the bunch for him just a few minutes ago but it’s full gas now to get back among those sheltering wheels.
Meanwhile, Tommy has it back up to 1:34 as the bunch ride tempo – not relaxed but not full on either with the red of Lotto to the fore and Astana right behind.
Tommy rocks, rolls, puffs, pants as Lotto’s point man gestures for reinforcements; ‘get up here, boys.’
The run in is more or less pan flat and it looks like another day for Kittel.
The word is that Greipel backed off because of the rain yesterday; Sagan is strong but not as strong as Kittel – neither is Coquard.
Cav has gone, so has Modolo and Demare doesn’t seem to be firing – but maybe today, now that we’re back in la Republique and he must honour that red, white and blue jersey?
Giant start to show their teeth whilst Astana and Tinkoff hover – 41 seconds, 40, 39 . . .
Froome, Valverde, Costa, Rolland – they’re all near the front with no chances taken.
Inside 30 K and Henderson slides out on a roundabout taking at least one of his team mates with him – bad news for Greipel.
Still Tommy leads, he’s doomed but the fans love it.
Giant are stepping up to mark very early today; 25 K to go with the usual power house suspects right there too, keeping their bosses out of trouble – Tosatto for Tinkoff and Contador; Bauer for Garmin and Talansky and Oss for BMC and van Garderen.
Inside 20 K and Tommy is still alone at the head of affairs – he’s done a job for his sponsors, this day.
Degenkolb’s huge legs are pumping an evil rhythm out as heavy artillery in the shape of Tosatto and Tuft for Garmin come up to flank him.
And now we see why Giant have taken it up early; the parcours are like a pinball table, twisting, turning, squirming – as the strong men swallow up Tommy and spit him out.
Nice job, Tommy; but Sagan is off the back – crash, puncture?
The diesel stains on his shorts give us the answer – can he make it back up, we’ll know in around 15 minutes?
Damp roads, technical parcours, desperate men; it’s not a good mixture – or perhaps it is, if you’re watching on TV.
Wide but wet roads at 10 K to go as Tinkoff keep Alberto well to the fore – he’s taking no chances.
Garmin mass, Giant are quiet, Quick-Step are there – we’re in the heart of Lille, tight bends, diesel, white lines . . .
Van Summeren is working hard for Garmin; keeping Talansky safe, setting it up for Navardauskas – or both?
Five K and it’s Quick-Step in control; they drive through four K, still the Belgians power on, Ale Jet looks back, takes it up as they hit three K, the Italian is done but Tony Martin takes it up, inside two and the remarkable Degenkolb has grabbed point for Giant.
Red kite and it’s messy, no trains, every man for himself – but Katusha drag up Kristoff and he goes long.
Kittel waits, waits then goes – but Kristoff is strong and holds on as Kittel drives and Demare comes late but the Big German is too strong and it’s his third win.
Kristoff batters his bars in second and Demare gets third – Sagan takes fourth and Coquard fifth.
As sprint stages go – not bad at all.
Pave tomorrow – ouch!
Tour de France Stage 4 Result:
1. Marcel Kittel (Ger) Giant-Shimano in 3:36:39
2. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha
3. Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ.fr
4. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale
5. Bryan Coquard (Fra) Europcar
6. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol
7. Mark Renshaw (Aus) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
8. Danny Van Poppel (Ned) Trek
9. Davide Cimolai (Ita) Lampre-Merida
10. Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC.
Tour de France Overall After Stage 4:
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana in 17:07:52
2. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale at 0:02
3. Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-GreenEDGE
4. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC
5. Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo
6. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar
7. Christopher Froome (GB) Sky
8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol
9. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin
10. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana.