Competing in bunch sprints at the Tour de France can be a frenzied way to earn a living, but Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) is normally one of the most composed practitioners of the art. The German couldn't hide his frustration on crossing the line in fifth place on stage 14 in Villars-Les-Dombes on Saturday, however, raising an arm in protest at Mark Cavendish's winning sprint.
After nigh on six hours of chugging into a block headwind on the road from Montélimar, the quietest stage of this year's Tour to date was shaken from its torpor by a fiercely-contested bunch sprint. With an arduous final week in the Alps to come, this was the last guaranteed opportunity for the fast men before the Champs-Élysées and there was desperation in the air.
Well-piloted by his Etixx-QuickStep team, Kittel hit the front as the finishing straight bent slightly to the right in the final 200 metres, but Cavendish was locked on his wheel, and he was overtaken within sight of the line.
Whether Kittel could have mustered the speed to overhaul Cavendish from that position is debatable, but he was clearly aggrieved by the Manxman's deviation into his path. With 50 metres to go, Kittel was already freewheeling, his arm outstretched in complaint.
For Cavendish, the bouquet and the plaudits as he claimed the fourth win of what has become something of a comeback Tour. For Kittel, a moment's introspection inside his team bus and then a measured expression of his anger in both German and English for the reporters who waited outside.
"I started my sprint at 250 or 220 metres to go, at the bottom of the right-hand turn, and once I was in front, I saw Cavendish coming by and as soon as he passed me he went to the right, I had to brake to avoid a crash and that was it," Kittel said as he soft-pedalled on his turbo-trainer.
"That move definitely influenced the result of today. It's not up to me to decide what should happen now."
By that point, the race jury had already confirmed Cavendish as the winner, finding no fault in his manoeuvre in the finishing straight. Indeed, Cavendish said later that when Kittel tapped him on the back beyond the finish line, he assumed it was to offer his congratulations.
"What happened, happened. In the end my opinion is not important as long as the jury doesn't take a decision," Kittel said. "It is what it is. All I can say is that I think that the result we have on paper is not what it normally would be. And of course I'm very disappointed."
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After a torrid 2015 campaign, Kittel has enjoyed a renaissance this year in the colours of Etixx-QuickStep, and the general belief coming into this Tour was that he would pick up where he left off when he landed four stages in both 2013 and 2014. Victory in Limoges on stage 4 notwithstanding, this has been a Tour replete with frustration for Kittel, and he drew little consolation from his belief that his form is in crescendo.
"I definitely had good sprinting legs," he said. "But in the end it's not important. My team did a really good job of leading me out and controlling the race. I'm very proud of that, but unfortunately we didn't get the result we wanted, and it's one of the last sprints now."
Kittel has won on each of his previous two visits to the Champs-Élysées, and his 2013 victory denied Cavendish a fifth consecutive triumph on the old avenue. Next Sunday, he might find himself battling against Cavendish once more, this time seeking to deny him a fifth win on this very Tour.
A television reporter arriving late to the media scrum at the Etixx-QuickStep bus, meanwhile, proffered a microphone and asked Kittel if he would have changed anything about his own sprint. "I cannot answer that question. I would not do anything different," he said quietly. "You should ask someone else."