In a repeat of last year, Marcel Kittel took victory in Paris, bookending this year’s Tour in the same way he did in the previous edition. He flicked on the afterburners to storm past Alexander Kristoff in the final few metres of a furious bunch sprint to take a narrow victory. Vincenzo Nibali, the Shark of Messina, sailed over the line safely to seal his comprehensive overall victory.
Oh no, Peraud!
As is typical on the final stage of the Tour, the remaining 164 riders were in no hurry to get to the capital, and cruised into town at a leisurely pace of 35kph. It wasn’t until the Astana guard of honour paraded the yellow jersey onto the Rue de Rivoli that things started to get spicy. First Sylvain Chavanel (IAM) attacked and enjoyed a brief moment off the front, before Jens Voigt (Trek) went out on his own, much to the delight of the crowds.
Aside from the customary doomed attacks and blisteringly hot pace of the bunch, the first real drama came with 45km to go, when Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) crashed and suddenly looked in danger of losing his podium place. Fortunately, he wasn’t badly hurt and managed to continue, with teammates on hand to shepherd him back into the bunch. Brief respite was granted for the unlucky Ag2r hero when Chavanel persuaded the bunch to implement a temporary cessation of hostilities.
What ensued was the usual cat-and-mouse of breakaway versus bunch, as a three-man escape consisting of Richie Porte (Sky), Michael Morkov (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Jose Serpa (Lampre-Merida) maintained a flirtatious lead over the peloton. Meanwhile Katusha’s Kristoff’s hopes took a dent when he suffered a puncture and then saw key teammate Luca Paolini suffer a mechanical. When the lone break survivor, Porte, was swept up with 7.5km left, the sprint trains had taken charge and it was all set for a bunch sprint.
With all the main protagonists present, there was a full-blooded battle of sprint trains through the last few bends. The elbows were out as teams vied for position and worked to disrupt the Giant-Shimano flow, but John Degenkolb did an incredible job of setting Marcel Kittel up to do battle with Kristoff. Also doing a fine job were the Garmin-Sharp boys, who managed to drop Ramunas Navardauskas right in the mix. Kristoff had the edge going into the final straight, but Kittel had an extra little kick to give him victory in a duel that was befitting of the final day of this great race.
VeloVoices rider of the day
Although he didn’t win today, I’m choosing John Degenkolb as our final rider of the day. A great sprinter in his own right, his work in the Giant-Shimano train was pivotal to Marcel Kittel’s success. The emerging tactic in how to beat the German powerhouse appears to be to derail his sprint train, and that was in full effect today in a real battle royale of the leadouts. It was swashbuckling hero Degenkolb who held his place to give the final drive that Kittel needed before unleashing his sprint, and I don’t believe that Giant-Shimano would be celebrating the win were it not for the strong work and quick thinking of Degenkolb.
Four days into this Tour, after Kittel had won his third stage and Chris Froome had suffered the crash that would see him abandon the following day, I was starting to wonder whether this edition was going to be a case of (in the inimitable words of Yogi Berra) déjà vu all over again, with Kittel and Alberto Contador carving up the flat and mountain stages between them. When Contador himself abandoned on stage ten, it looked like we were heading for a plodding procession to Nibali’s coronation as far as the GC was concerned.
However, that wasn’t the case. The 2014 Tour will go down as one of the most unpredictable, exciting and delightful editions ever. There was no neutralisation of stages in the mountains among the GC favourites, with attacks popping off all over the place. Mundane flat stages were enlivened by bad weather, clever tactics and edge-of-the-seat finishes, from Jack Bauer‘s near-miss in Nimes to his Garmin-Sharp teammate Navardauskas’ daring solo attack on a sodden finish in Bergerac.
How did this happen? For me there have been several key factors.
Firstly, a cleverly designed parcours which ramped up the difficulty slowly but included the bombshell of the stage five cobbles, which blew the GC open and forced everyone to open up their tactical playbooks thereafter. Leaving the time trial until the penultimate day also proved to be a stroke of genius, forcing the climbers to press on throughout the Pyrenean stages.
Then we had the early retirements of Froome and Contador, which opened up the podium to riders such as Peraud and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), whose initial ambitions were probably only top five at best.
The way the white and polka dot jersey competitions developed encouraged a whole load of riders to attack rather than just a few. Peraud, Pinot, Romain Bardet (Ag2r), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) were instrumental in creating the non-stop excitement that carried us all the way through the Alps and Pyrenees.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the fact that French riders were at the heart of so much of the drama. Despite there being no tangible contribution from the Europcar pair of Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland, we had a two-way battle for the white jersey between Pinot and Bardet, stage wins for Blel Kadri (Ag2r) and Lotto-Belisol’s Tony Gallopin (plus a day in yellow for the latter on Bastille Day) and two French riders on the podium for the first time since 1984.
Add to that 2013 Vuelta stage winners Kenny Elissonde and Warren Barguil. and there’s little doubt that French cyclists are no longer making up the numbers or even just occasional players at the big races. They are contenders once again.
Just as Formula 1 needs a healthy Ferrari in order to thrive, and the football World Cup requires a competitive Brazil, so too does the Tour de France need a healthy home challenge for things to feel trulyright. It has that now. Even as a non-Frenchman, that feels good.
Review by Ant, with additional reflections by Tim.
Stage 21 result
1. Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) 3:20:50
2. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) same time
3. Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp) s/t
4. Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) s/t
5. Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 89:59:06
2. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) +7:37
3. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) +8:15
4. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +9:40
5. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) +11:24
6. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) +11:26
7. Leopold Konig (NetApp-Endura) +14:32
8. Haimar Zubeldia (Trek) +17:57
9. Laurens ten Dam (Belkin) +18:11
10. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) +21:15
Points winner: Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
King of the Mountains winner: Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Best young rider: Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
Team classification winner: Ag2r La Mondiale.