When Mark Cavendish decided to exit the Tour de France on the second rest-day he left the door to the Champs Elysées wide open. The Dimension Data rider was the dominant sprinter of this race and in his absence the sprinters who had been feeding off scraps had one final chance to get something out of the race.
Unlike Cavendish, they'd all trekked over three tortuous Alpine stages to get here, and the opportunity wasn't going to be passed up lightly.
In the end it was André Greipel who emerged victorious for the second year in a row to extend his remarkable run of winning a stage in each and every Grand Tour he's ridden since 2008.
"I can't describe it. I'm just super proud of what we've achieved today," said the German. "I've raced for three weeks for that. Another stage win at the Tour de France – it's wonderful."
Peter Sagan – who else? – was second, while Alexander Kristoff finished third again to make it a fifth barren Grand Tour.
Two of the biggest favourites, Marcel Kittel and Bryan Coquard, didn't contest the sprint at all. They both suffered untimely mechanicals and while the German was a picture of fury, flinging a defunct wheel into the road, a quietly downcast Coquard rolled the last 3km shaking his head.
"I don't puncture once during the Tour, and now I puncture here," rued the Frenchman, whose mother had recently been interviewed in French TV at the side of the Champs.
There were high hopes for 'Le Coq' after Romain Bardet had stoked the enthusiasm of the home nation with his burst into second overall. The 24-year-old was second to Kittel by 28 agonising millimetres in stage 4's photo finish, and was determined to provide confirmation here of his coming of age.
"It's frustrating because I've been thinking about this stage for five to six days now. The whole team – not just me. I wanted to do this for them. It's really annoying," said Coquard afterwards.
"28 milimetres – what's that? I think I've had a good Tour. It's hasn't been a complete success but it hasn't been a wasted Tour. I'm at their level. On false-flat finishes I think I'm among the best in the world."
Kittel mechanical leads to melt-down
Marcel Kittel was the only other 'pure sprinter' to have won a bunch kick before today, but was no less motivated here. That certainly showed when he furiously flung one of his wheels into the road, having suffered three mechanical issues in quick succession.
The strapping German won twice in a row in Paris in 2013 and 2014 in what had signalled a changing of the guard from the Cavendish era, but the tables have been turned once more this July.
Leaving with one stage win is no disaster for Kittel, but he seemed to have announced himself as the strongest sprinter in the world in the first half of the season, and would have been hungry to restore that notion with another symbolic win here.
As it was, he didn't contest the sprint, rolling home nearly a minute behind his compatriot. With one stage apiece at the Tour, and 3-2 in Greipel's favour at the Giro d'Italia, the German selectors face an interesting decision for the World Championships in October.
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Stage 21 Video Highlights
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