The fourth bunch sprint finish of the 2016 Tour de France turned out to be yet another victory for Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data). In the streets of finish town of Montauban, Cavendish jumped out of the wheel of German sprinter Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) and managed to hold him off until the finish line.
Kittel was humble in defeat, claiming Cavendish had played it smarter, while regretting that a team lead-out wasn't possible due to the chaotic nature of the final kilometres.
After crossing the line, Kittel sank to the ground at the side of the road. He took some time to recover and then headed to the Etixx-QuickStep team bus. Without saying a word, he zipped open his shirt and started warming down on the rollers for five minutes. When coming back off the bike he walked over to all his teammates to thank them for their support. A few more words were exchanged with Julien Vermote. Then he walked up to the waiting media.
"The Tour organizers must have thought to make a big spectacle from it. It was chaotic," Kittel said. "It was only when we came out of the final corner that I knew I was starting the sprint from the top five. I think Cavendish was on my wheel. He rode a super fast sprint and managed to pass me. I'm second again. I would have loved to have won."
It was clearly hard for teams to lead out their sprinters, with several team briefly coming to the front before fading back again. "To be very honest, in the finals this year it's impossible to ride with a team lead-out," Kittel said. "I don't know what the organizers are doing. We go downhill into the city with all the small roads and corners. It goes wide, narrow and wide again. Every team is struggling to just stay in the front. And the GC teams are also holding the wheels until the finish line.
"It's just pure chaos. That's why you can win here by making smart decisions. The team only has to bring me until a certain moment and then you have to get on the wheel of someone. But you don't know what's going to happen."
That's more or less a description of the winning tactic from Mark Cavendish on Thursday. The Manxman came out of Kittel's wheel, Kittel briefly came back up but he could only get to within half a bike length.
"He was fast. He came out of my wheel again. He played it smart. For sure he's strong in the sprint otherwise he wouldn't have won this finale. He also has this smart view on the race, when to be where. I tried everything but I couldn't hold him off. It was close in the end. That's life," Kittel said.
The sprinters will take a back seat in the coming days, with three mountain stages in the Pyrenees coming up. The next chance for the fast men might be on stage 10, if they can survive the early first category climb of the Port d'Envalira and the late 3rd category climb near finish town Revel. Stage 11 to Montpellier is the next flat stage.