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Live coverage of stage 4 of the Tour de France, 163.5 kilometres from Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to Lille.
After jetting from London City Airport last night - while the rest of the race caravan travelled by train or sea - the Tour de France peloton lines up in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage for its first stage on French roads. They are without Andy Schleck, however, who has been forced to abandon the Tour due to the injuries he sustained in a crash during yesterday's finale in London.
Schleck was one of four riders to come down in an incident with 27 kilometres remaining, and he rolled in over a minute down on Monday evening. At that point, he was not overly disheartened, telling reporters "there's nothing lost." It was a different story on Tuesday morning, however. After attempting to coax his injured knee into action by warming up on the rollers ahead of the stage, Schleck came to the realisation that he would be unable to continue in the Tour. "The ligaments and meniscus in the right knee are too severely damaged from his crash in yesterday's final," his Trek team said, adding that Schleck will travel to Basel, Switzerland for a thorough examination and possible operation.
Andy Schleck has endured a wretched three years since finishing second in the 2011 Tour. His only victory since then has been the retrospective award of the 2010 Tour title following Alberto Contador's positive test for clenbuterol. There was a glimmer of hope when Schleck battled through last year's Tour to finish 20th in Paris, but he lined up this time around to ride in support of Haimar Zubeldia and his brother Frank. Before the Tour began, the 29-year-old spoke to Cyclingnews about his travails over the past few seasons and his hopes for the years to come.
The Tour, of course, waits for no man, and the race continues without Schleck on the road to Lille this afternoon. The general classification picture after the three-day excursion to England is as follows:
1 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team 13:31:13
2 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale 0:00:02
3 Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica Greenedge
4 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
5 Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky
6 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin Pro Cycling
7 Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo
8 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team
9 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto-Belisol
10 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
The flag has dropped and stage 4 of the Tour de France is underway. Almost immediately, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) springs into action and attacks. Yesterday, the first attack of the day was given its head and allowed to stay clear, but it doesn't seem as though Voeckler will be allowed to get away that easily.
Voeckler is joined at the front by Luis Mate (Cofidis) and they have opened a small gap over the peloton, which is travelling at a brisk pace.
A touch of wheels in the peloton sees Chris Froome hit the ground. The Sky rider is instantly on his feet but his shorts are torn at the hip on his left-hand side.
Froome checks his wrist a couple of times, but he doesn't appear to have done any damage to it. He is quickly back on his bike and Bernard Eisel is part of a small delegation of Sky riders guiding him back to the bunch.
It seems as though there was a touch of wheels in front of Froome and he was unable to avoid falling into the ditch on the roadside. He has cuts to his elbow, hip and knee, and there are tears to his jersey and shorts. Froome, of course, suffered a heavy crash at the Dauphine in June, but he doesn't appear to have sustained anything more than cuts and bruises here. He's still calmly making his way back towards the rear of the peloton.
Astana are leading the peloton but at a relatively relaxed pace to allow Froome to get back on. That reduction in speed has allowed Mate and Voeckler to extend their lead to 42 seconds.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin) was also a faller and he is part of the Froome group that has just latched back on to the peloton. The Dutchman does not appear to have picked up any injuries in the incident.
Froome, meanwhile, is back at the race doctor's car, and the magic spray is being applied to the wound on his hip. Froome has been flexing his wrist repeatedly since the crash too. Certainly not the kind of injury he'll want to carry into Wednesday when the Tour tackles the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix...
The race doctor is now applying a gauze to Froome's left knee. The peloton has slowed considerably to allow Froome to receive treatment, but he is now pedalling his way back up to the rear of the bunch.
Froome continues to flex his left wrist as he rejoins the peloton. More so than the cuts and bruises to his left side, that injury to his hand will be the biggest concern.
Meanwhile, Voeckler and Mate have been able to take advantage of the impasse in the peloton. The Franco-Spanish pairing has built up a lead of two minutes and the day's early break has definitively established itself.
A further truce is called in the peloton to allow many riders answer the call of nature at the roadside. Astana continue to lead the bunch, but at a very sedate pace for now.
Paris-Plage conjures up images of the temporary "urban beaches" constructed on the banks of the Seine in Paris each summer, but today's start was, of course, some 230km due north of Paris. The town of Le Touquet was, in a sense, the original urban beach, hence the addition of Paris-Plage to its moniker as long ago as 1882.
Is it unfair to wonder if Voeckler would have been in the early break if this stage wasn't being broadcast live in its entirety? In any case, Voeckler and Mate have opened a gap of three minutes over the peloton, which is still being led by Astana.
There are two categorised climbs on the menu today, the category 4 Côte de Campagnette (1km at 6.5%) after 34km, and Mont Noir (1.3km at 5.7%) after 117.5km.
Voeckler and Mate are discussing tactics. Or rather more accurately, Voeckler is issuing instructions to Mate. These are two canny riders with an eye for the right break, but they'll have the work cut out to hold off the sprinters' teams today.
Indeed, Giant-Shimano have begun to contribute tentatively to the chase effort, with Cheng Ji moving to the front to lead the chase.
Voeckler is now swapping banter with the Cofidis management as the team car draws up alongside Mate. The Frenchman seems to be enjoying his stint off the front.
Voeckler and Mate are now approaching the Côte de Campagnette. Mate's teammate Cyril Lemoine holds the mountains jersey and Mate will surely look to protect his interests by taking the point on offer here.
Luis Angel Maté leads over the top of the climb, as expected. Our two leaders have a buffer of 3:18 over the peloton.
A patched-up Chris Froome is sitting towards the front of the peloton on the climb, surrounded by a gaggle of Sky teammates. Lotto-Belisol, meanwhile, have now taken up the reins at the head of the bunch.
The peloton reaches the top of the climb 3:30 down on the two leaders, happy to allow them their moment for now.
Vincenzo Nibali's Astana guard are clustered just near the head of the bunch, keeping the maillot jaune - who, very tastefully, has not indulged in yellow shorts, handlebar tape or helmet - out of harm's way. Nibalienjoyed a relatively calm
first day in yellow in London yesterday, and he'd gladly settle for more of the same this afternoon.
It was quite frenetic in the finale in London, however, and one man who did not enjoy his afternoon on the greasy roads of the British capital was Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) who failed to make an impact in the sprint. His manager Marc Sergeant was succint in his appraisal. "André was afraid," he told Sporza. "He kept losing our boys’ wheels and braking on the corners. But you can’t win anything that way at the Tour. It was a lost opportunity.”
The pace is still relatively tranquil in the main peloton, and world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) is happy to sit up and wave to the television cameras. After the finish yesterday, Rui Costa was visited by his fellow countryman and self-styled Special One Jose Mourinho. "I'm back in London because we start pre-season training at Chelsea tomorrow," Mourinho told L'Equipe. "It was Rui Costa who called me and asked if I wanted to come along, and I said yes because it's one thing to watch the Tour on TV and quite another to come and see it live."
Lotto-Belisol and Giant-Shimano are keeping tabs on the break's lead, which remains steady at 3:30. Voeckler and Maté have reached a fluid working agreement and are sticking resolutely to their task.
Cofidis are on home roads this afternoon. One of the peloton's longest-serving sponsors, the credit company is based in Lille and has traditionally had a strong Nordiste presence on its roster, dating back to the days when the team featured the late Philippe Gaumont and Laurent Desbiens. This year's Tour team includes Adrien Petit, who hails from nearby Arras and he would dearly love to make an impact in any eventual bunch finish in Lille.
For the second successive day, Cheng Ji of Giant-Shimano is putting in a solid shift on the front of the peloton. Cheng Ji is the first Chinese rider to line up at the Tour. Now in his 8th season with the team, he has waited a long time for this opportunity but has impressed so far.
Andrew Talansky has been well protected by his Garmin-Sharp teammates to date and the American is one of 20 riders just two seconds off Nibali's overall lead. Talansky confirmed before the Tour that he would remain with the team next year, but the name of that team is yet to be decided. Jonathan Vaughters confirmed yesterday that he will have a new sponsor - and probably a new bike supplier - in 2015, but he refused to comment on speculation linking Garmin to a possible form of merger with Cannondale.
Voeckler and Maté averaged a shade over 43kph for the first hour of racing, and they maintain a lead of 3:10 over the peloton with a little over 100 kilometres remaining. The odds are stacked against them fending off the sprinters at this rate.
Letour.fr has picked up some comments from Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal on the Chris Froome crash. The Frenchman confirmed that the Tour champion did not sustain any serious injury in the incident. "We were scared out of our wits, like everyone else, but after talking with him, everything seems okay," Portal said. "He hit the tarmac hard, but everything's all right. I'm not superstitious, but this is one fall we could've done without."
Mate and Voeckler's lead has been clipped back a little over the past ten kilometres or so. Their margin is now down to 2:15 and the pace is gradually beginning to ratchet upwards in the peloton as a delegation from Lotto-Belisol moves towards the front.
The crowds aren't six-deep as they were at some points in Yorkshire, but there are still plenty of people out on the roadsides in Saint-Omer to cheer Voeckler and Mate through town. This is an area with a strong cycling tradition, and boasts an outdoor velodrome named in memory of five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil.
Voeckler and Mate's lead is gradually frittering away, even though the peloton is a long way off full bore just yet. Their advantage has dropped inside two minutes for the first time since the brief impasse that followed Chris Froome's crash in the opening kilometres.
There's a brief lull in the pace in the peloton as they pass through the feed zone at Renescure, and there is scope here for Voeckler and Mate to claw back a few seconds to add to their buffer.
We're only a little more than 10 kilometres from the day's intermediate sprint, however, so we can expect the lime green jerseys of Cannondale to start funnelling their way to the front of the bunch in the next few minutes and the speed should rise accordingly.
It's an uphill sprint at Cassel, to boot, which ought to help Peter Sagan add to his lead in the points classification. The climb at Cassel is a fixture of the Four Days of Dunkirk, and Arnaud Démare dealt with it comfortably (twice) en route to victory in Coudekerque-Brance on the opening stage of the race this year, a win that set him on his way to final overall victory.
Indeed, Démare will hope to shine on these two days in the north of France. Démare is very familiar with the roads around Lille - his girlfriend is a student there, and he trained regularly on the nearby Roubaix velodrome over the winter. Tomorrow's stage over the cobbles, meanwhile, is a real chance for Démare to follow up on his strong showing at this year's Paris-Roubaix and the stage's presence on the parcours helped to ensure his selection for the Tour ahead of Nacer Bouhanni.
The peloton is just five kilometres from the sprint at Cassel, and the green jersey of Sagan is duly moving up through the field. Voeckler and Mate, meanwhile, are 2:18 up the road.
An image of Chris Froome in the peloton following his crash in the opening kilometres today. He is maintaining his position near the front of the peloton and in spite of the strapping on his wrist, he does not appear to have any undue problems in gripping his handlebars.
Interesting to see a big group from Giant-Shimano moving up ahead of the intermediate sprint given that Marcel Kittel insisted yesterday that hehas no designs on the green jersey
Mate suffers a mechanical problem on the long drag towards Cassel and he has to stop to change his bike. Voeckler opts to wait for him and Mate quickly managed to climb his way back up to him.
Voeckler leads Mate through the line at Cassel to take the intermediate points. In the Four Days of Dunkirk, Cassel is usually approached from its cobbled side, but the peloton will face a brief stretch of pave' on the way down this afternoon.
Bryan Coquard follows Peter Sagan's first acceleration on the way up the climb to the sprint, but he has no answer when the Slovak kicks again closer to the summit. He has yet to win a stage in this Tour, but it's already all but impossible to see who can deny Sagan a third successive green jersey in Paris.
Voeckler and Mate are rattling down the cobbled descent from Cassel. In spite of the dark clouds overhead, the rain has held off to date and the peloton should negotiate this brief section of pave' without any real difficulties.
Mate's mechanical and Cannondale's forcing on the climb - Marco Marcato provided a fine lead-out for Sagan - have combined to slash the break's lead, which has now dropped to just 55 seconds.
Cannondale have cleverly continued their forcing in the crosswinds over the top of the Cassel and down the other side. They're still ratcheting up the pace now in a bid to shake some of the pure sprinters loose before the bunch reaches Lille, not unlike their forcing on the road to Albi last year.
Cannondale have forced a split in the peloton although they don't seem to have rid Sagan of the company of any of the pure sprinters. Kittel and Greipel are still prominent near the front of the bunch.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) have been caught out, however, and are in a group that is frantically trying to latch back on to the main peloton. At the front, meanwhile, Voeckler and Mate's lead has been shorn back to just 30 seconds.
Lotto-Belisol are happy to help Cannondale with their forcing and it's interesting to see a Lampre delegation led by Nelson Oliveira also moving up.
The Joaquim Rodriguez group is about 30 riders strong and at one point had fallen a minute behind the yellow jersey group, but they have now closed the gap to just 20 seconds or so. Rodriguez, of course, is already 17 minutes down in the overall standings, and even before the race began, he insisted that he was coming here purely to look for stage wins and prepare for the Vuelta a Espana.
The peloton crosses very briefly into the Belgium in the next kilometres, but will pay a more substantial visit tomorrow, with an evocative start in the shadow of Ypres' Menin Gate in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of beginning of World War I.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) is also in that Rodriguez group, which is reportedly 55 seconds down on the bunch.
The situation is as follows: Luis Mate and Thomas Voeckler are 35 seconds clear of the peloton, while a 30-man group featuring Michal Kwiatkowski and Joaquim Rodriguez is 1:35 down on the leaders and a minute behind the bunch.
And then there was one. A front wheel puncture for Luis Mate ends his excursion off the front, and now Thomas Voeckler is left to his own devices. The Frenchman accelerates and stretches his lead back out to 45 seconds.
The urgency has ebbed away from the front of the peloton, and the Kwiatkowski group is back within touching distance once again. The black jerseys of Omega Pharma-QuickStep are massed at the front of the group and are guiding Kwiatkowski back to safety.
Voeckler has taken advantage of the slackening of the bunch's pace to extend his lead to 1:10 with a little over 50 kilometres to race. The Kwiatkowski and Rodriguez group, meanwhile, has made it back to the rear of the main peloton.
Shortly after guiding Michal Kwiatkowski back to safety, Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra takes a tumble at low speed. The Dutchman is instantly back on his bike, however, and forges his way back up to the bunch.
Thomas Voeckler remains at the head of the race and he is bobbing his way up the day's second categorised climb, Mont Noir, with a lead of 1:17 over the peloton. There are raucous cheers for Le Grand Public's favourite rider.
Voeckler accelerates over the Mont Noir to give himself a flying start to the descent. He almost overshoots the first bend, but corrects himself and makes it around safely. His lead is up to 1:27.
It's been a trying day for Niki Terpstra. He crashed after leading Kwiatkowski back up to the bunch, and now he's had to stop for a bike change after making his own way back up to the peloton. He is in the convoy of cars at the top of Mont Noir, trying to latch back on for the third time in the space of 15 kilometres.
Voeckler is never anything less than value for money. The Frenchman is motoring now - and running through part of his extensive repertoire of contorted expressions to boot. His lead is up to 1:35. Surely he can't pull this one off?
There's something of a lull at the head of the peloton as the sprinters' teams are reluctant to take up the reins of the pursuit just yet. Voeckler needs to pile on the seconds on this section of the course and see where that leaves him in the final 30 kilometres or so when the chase begins in earnest.
Every time his pace drops, Voeckler hauls himself out of the saddle and redoubles his efforts. He is a study in determination, but that mindset can surely only carry him so far with Lotto-Belisol now setting about the business of organising the chase in earnest.
In spite of crash earlier, Chris Froome is still well-placed near the head of the bunch, with Bernhard Eisel guiding his way.
Voeckler's lead has dropped inside a minute once again, and Lotto, Giant-Shimano and Tinkoff-Saxo are now all beginning to marshal their troops to the front.
Large tufts of Voeckler's lead are being shorn away with each passing kilometre at this point. His lead is down to 45 seconds with a little over 20 miles still to race.
Voeckler is heading towards the town of Armentières, a name which has passed into Tour infamy. Twenty years ago, Laurent Jalabert and Wilfried Nelissen were the victims in a mass crash in a bunch sprint at the 1994 Tour. Even in the pre-selfie era, fans had the tendency to lose the run of themselves on the roadside - a police officer leant too far into the road in the finishing straight to take a picture, sparking the horrific crash.
Greg Henderson's wheels slip from under him on a roundabout approaching Armentieres and he comes down along with his Lotto Belisol teammate Bart De Clercq. An especially obnoxious spectator rushes to take one of Henderson's dislodged bidons and then waves it in the air for the television cameras to confirm that, yes, he is indeed the most ignorant man in northern France. Congratulations.
Up front, Voeckler's lead is down to just 20 seconds but he continues to rage against the dying of the light.
Giant-Shimano have taken over the chasing duties at the front of the peloton, however, and the Dutch squad are about to snuff out Voeckler's guttering hopes of pulling off an upset.
There's no shortage of road furniture on the run-in to Lille.The peloton splits and then reforms around a series of traffic islands, mercifully without any further fallers. Voeckler's lead is still 20 seconds.
Voeckler is putting up typically fierce resistance and is holding his 20-second lead, but the bunch can now make out his rear wheel on the longer straights.
Voeckler, remember, has been off the front for 140 kilometres at this stage, but he surely won't survive out here too much longer.
Voeckler's body is rolling with each pedal stroke as he attempts to summon up every last ounce of energy. He has 16 seconds of a lead as he enters the final 20 kilometres.
Sadly, Greg Henderson (Lotto-Belisol) has been forced to abandon the Tour as a result of the injuries he picked up in his crash. We'll have a full update after the stage.
Lars Bak and Bart De Clercq were also caught up in that incident but both men are still in the race, though not with the main peloton.
The peloton is just seven seconds away as Voeckler enters the final 18 kilometres. He won't be waiting too long out in front at this rate.
Thomas Voeckler sits up and takes a swig from his bidon. The Frenchman is finally caught by the peloton after 145 kilometres at the head of the race.
It's gruppo compatto, but Peter Sagan (Cannondale) is off the back of the peloton. The Slovak seems to have had some manner of mechanical problem and he is chasing back on alone.
Indeed, Sagan has some scuffs on his right shoulder - the Slovak must have been a faller, although he doesn't seem to be in any distress. He bunnyhops a roundabout and then jumps from the slipstream of one motorbike to another as he moves to within touching distance of the rear of the bunch.
Garmin-Sharp and Tinkoff-Saxo both have massed their triders near the front of the bunch in a bid to keep Talansky and Contador out of danger in the finale.
Sagan has a word with the team car before rejoining the rear of the peloton. He'll have his work cut out to make a serious impact in the bunch sprint this afternoon.
Like yesterday, Tinkoff-Saxo have taken command of the peloton on the run-in to the finish. Their vigilant, pro-active approach to protecting Contador is the exact opposite of the way Mercatone Uno used to sit at the back of the peloton gathered around Marco Pantani at the 1998 Tour.
Daniele Bennati puts in a mammoth turn on the front in support of Contador, while Garmin-Sharp cluster around Talansky on the other side of the road.
Delegations from Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Katusha are also moving up. Mark Renshaw and Alexander Kristoff will both expect to make an impact in the sprint.
The overall contenders - Contador, Nibali, Valverde and Froome - are all still well-placed near the head of the bunch.
Tony Martin hits the front to start Omega Pharma-QuickStep's lead-out train, but his power is such that he accidentally pulls away from the rest of his teammates. The German immediately corrects his pace and sits up.
Giant-Shimano left it late to start their lead-out in earnest yesterday and they have yet to show themselves in the finale in Lille.
For now, it's Garmin's Johan Vansummeren who leads the bunch with Talansky tucked in third position.
The roads are quite narrow at this juncture and the sprinters' teams are finding it hard to move up and overtake the Garmin-Sharp train.
QuickStep finally muscle their way to the front. Mark Renshaw was a fine third yesterday and the Belgian squad clearly have confidence that he can take up the mantle once again in Lille.
There are six QuickStep riders in front now, with Renshaw tucked onto the wheel of the veteran Alessandro Petacchi.
Giant-Shimano are looking to move up alongside QuickStep but it's not easy at this pace. Bryan Coquard (Europcar) has his lead-out man Kevin Reza for company.
Petacchi takes over in front for QuickStep with 3km remaining. They still have Tony Martin in reserve too.
When Petacchi swings off, Tony Martin takes over. Giant-Shimano are moving up alongside QuickStep at the front.
Tony Martin leads the QuickStep train into the final two kilometres.
Now Giant-Shimano muscle their way to the front in a bid to set up Kittel for his third win.
Giant-Shimano lead the peloton into the final kilometre. Sagan is locked onto Kittel's wheel.
Katusha lead out the sprint for Alexander Kristoff, who goes from distance.
Mark Renshaw, Kittel, Sagan and Demare are lined up on his wheel.,,
Kittel opens his sprint but it's going to be tight...
Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) wins stage 4 of the Tour de France.
It was a blanket finish, but Kittel finished just ahead of Kristoff and Demare.
Demare came from a long, long way back and was actually gaining ground on Kittel but he ran out of road and had to settle for third. Peter Sagan took fourth ahead of Coquard and Greipel.
1 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Team Giant-Shimano
2 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha
3 Arnaud Démare (Fra) FDJ.fr
4 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale
5 Bryan Coquard (Fra) Team Europcar
6 André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol
7 Mark Renshaw (Aus) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team
8 Danny van Poppel (Ned) Trek Factory Racing
9 Davide Cimolai (Ita) Lampre-Merida
10 Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing Team
Kristoff went early and it looked as though that bold move was going to pay off when Renshaw hesitated on his wheel and allowed a gap to open. Kittel, however, cranked into action inside the final 200 metres and overhauled him at the death. Demare's speed was impressive too - if he had been better placed coming into the final bend, he would have pushed Kittel very close indeed....
Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador all finished in the main peloton and remain within two seconds of one another ahead of tomorrow's eagerly-anticipated stage over the cobbles.
1 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team 17:07:52
2 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale 0:00:02
3 Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica Greenedge
4 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
5 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo
6 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team
7 Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky
8 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto-Belisol
9 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin Pro Cycling
10 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team
"I went really long and it was really very hard," Kittel says. "It's not a surprise that Kristoff was so close, he was always on our list of rivals. We saw today that we are not unbeatable in the sprint."
Peter Sagan offers his congratulations to Kittel as they pedal towards the podium. Sagan expertly slipped in ahead of Greipel to take Kittel's wheel for the sprint, but he couldn't match the German in the finishing straight.
Thanks for joining our live coverage of today's stage to Lille. We'll have a full report, results and pictures here, as well as all the news and reaction from stage 4, including an update on the injuries Chris Froome sustained in his early crash. We'll also be looking ahead to tomorrow's stage over the cobbles to Arenberg, and you can follow blow by blow coverage of stage 5 here on Cyclingnews.