Watching Marcel Kittel soar away from the rest of the field in Bergerac for his fourth victory of this Tour de France, there was the feeling that there were two different races taking place. According to John Degenkolb, who mopped up the remains a bike length behind his compatriot, you could make that two different planets.
"He was unbeatable today," Degenkolb told reporters after a warm-down outside the Trek-Segafredo team bus.
"He's just super talented, and at the moment he's just very very good. At the moment I don't really see someone who can beat him man against man."
Degenkolb, still in the hunt for a first stage win at the Tour de France, could only raise his tally of runner-up finishes to six. In the end, though, there was hardly a hint of disappointment. As he explained, such was the strength of Kittel, it was a small victory simply to remain in his slipstream.
"Going into the last kilometre I thought it was over, but then a small miracle happened, with Marcel overtaking me on the right side, and I could follow his wheel. I had to do a full sprint just to stay in the slipstream. That's what gave me the opportunity to get second in the end," said the Trek-Segafredo rider.
Despite the gulf in class, the Bergerac sprint gives Degenkolb a timely boost in what has been a trying Tour. A fifth place in Nuits-Saint-Georges was his best previous result in an opening week replete with sprint opportunities. He has been affected by a shoulder injury he sustained in the stage 3 crash that saw both Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish exit the race, albeit for different reasons.
"I have a lot of pain. On the bike is the most comfortable at the moment but I still cannot really lift my arm, I cannot get bidons from the side of the road, I cannot get musettes – my teammates have to get it for my because I can't put any pressure on the shoulder," he explained.
"Of course today is a good boost of confidence. In the end, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to go behind Marcel. I think if he wasn't in that position I wouldn't have been able to come to the front.
"For me, that's the best place so far in this Tour. I'll try to fight tomorrow and the days after. My shape is good and I can look pretty optimistically to the next stages."
That optimism, however, comes with a substantial qualifier in the form of the towering – both physically and metaphorically – figure of Kittel.
"The Tour is still the Tour, and anything can happen," Degenkolb countered. With a further four possible sprint opportunities between here and Paris, it's a mantra he and the other sprint protagonists might find themselves repeating, though perhaps more in hope than with any true conviction.
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