After a string of Tour de France stage wins from fellow German sprinter Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) it was finally time for André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) to win a bunch sprint. Greipel's confidence was tested to the maximum after a series of poor showings in the four previous bunch sprints, with a sixth place as best result. In the gloomy streets of Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, the 31-year-old German powerhouse blasted to a convincing win over Norwegian strong man Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
After crossing the line Greipel released a huge shout. A few metres further he flew in the arms of his soigneur, quickly looking for teammates with which to celebrate the victory. Skinny general classification rider Jurgen Van den Broeck was the first one to give sturdy Greipel a big hug.
Despite his no-show in the sprints so far, Greipel claimed he never had doubts when talking during the post-race flash interview.
"The confidence was always there. It was not easy in the head. We just said to ourselves to stay calm and go fight today. It was really good work. It was a deserved win," Greipel said. "There was a lot of pressure on us. Finally we have it. Whoever was doubting Lotto-Belisol received a good answer today."
The German had a hard time on the roads from Arras to Reims, fighting to stay in position while riding in the wind and rain. "It was a really nervous day. [...] I'm really happy with my team. They always kept me in front. Especially the last 30km with the crosswinds," Greipel said. "In the end there was no lead-out train but with all the roundabouts it was not easy to stay together. I had a good wheel with Mark Renshaw. I lost energy to stay in position. With 250 metres to go I told myself to go full gas. Whatever happened would happen. Of course I'm really happy that I get the stage win."
At the Lotto-Belisol bus which was parked next to cavé of the famous Taittinger champagne there were clearly signs of relief to be spotted among the staff. Team manager Marc Sergeant was all smiles.
"There's a worse location to celebrate a victory. It's perfect," Sergeant said.
"What a relief. Many people were wondering: Is that your sprinter, finishing 18th & 23rd? It must've hurt him as well. The expectations were that we would win with Greipel, he expected that, too. Being beaten four times by Kittel hurts the confidence so he needed this win," Sergeant said.
"There are only two sprinters here and that's Kittel and Greipel, with Cavendish being home now. He knows that as well. Luckily he wins today because it's a while now before the next bunch sprint. I always emphasized that we were still standing behind him. He's our fast man. That doesn't change if you beat Degenkolb for the title. Mentally the first days were hard because he aimed to get yellow and that didn't work out."
During Thursday's sixth stage of the Tour de France, Greipel was not to be compared with the cautious rider from the days before. "Today he showed that he was in front and that he would win. He always remained in front despite all the roundabouts. I was confident that if he would be still there after the last corner and spot the finish line he would take it. He wasn't waiting for teammates. If five men passed him he was the next one to move in. He wanted to win," Sergeant said.
The Belgian manager added that his team decided that they no longer would work in the peloton to get the breakaway back if Katusha, FDJ.fr and Europcar wouldn't join in. "Maybe that was the key although André was worried that a breakaway might stay away. In the end it all came back together after the crashes."
Of course Greipel was helped by the absence of Marcel Kittel who was caught behind when Omega Pharma-Quick-Step tried to rip the race apart in the crosswinds in the last ten kilometres. Lars Bak informed Sergeant that Kittel was suffering. "It's hard to believe it until they told it in the radio. Of course I mentioned it to the guys through our radio," Sergeant said.
Last year Greipel re-found his winning legs on the sixth stage as well but Sergeant thought that was a coincidence. "Last year there were dramatic circumstances because Van den Broeck had just left the Tour because of his crash. That gave him wings. This year he crashed again but without major damage."
Marcel Sieberg was there with Van den Broeck when he crashed. The German rider was clearly in a much worse condition than his team leader as his right flank was bruised. Sieberg helped Van den Broeck out and came back to help Greipel in the sprint. "He still believed in what he can do. In London when you brake once too much you lose 20 positions. That's normal. We said we wanted to win a stage and today was the last chance. Tomorrow maybe it's for Jurgen [Roelandts] or Tony [Gallopin]," Sieberg said.
Van den Broeck wasn't worried about his two crashes in two days. First of all he was pleased with the win from Greipel. "Of course I'm happy. Personally I don't think it's too bad. In front of the peloton they were sliding away in a corner and you can't avoid it. If it's nothing more than that it's ok. There's a bit of road rash," Van den Broeck said right after crossing the line.