Britain’s Chris Froome, wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, and Germany’s Marcel Kittel, wearing the best sprinter’s green jersey, ride in the pack during the eleventh stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 203.5 kilometers (126.5 miles) with start in Eymet and finish in Pau, France, Wednesday, July 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
PAU, France — German rider Marcel Kittel claimed the 11th stage of the Tour de France in a sprint finish on Wednesday, taking his tally to five stage wins since the start of the race.
Ahead of two hard days in the Pyrenees mountains, Chris Froome finished in the main pack to retain the race leader’s yellow jersey.
A sprint specialist, Kittel has now won 14 Tour de France stages in five appearances at cycling’s showcase event, a record for a German rider.
The stage took the peloton on a flat, 203.5-kilometre (126-mile) run from Eymet to Pau in southwestern France.
Kittel’s power in the bunch sprint could not be matched and the Quick-Step Floors rider easily beat Dylan Groenewegen and Edvald Boasson Hagen by half a bike length to extend his lead in the points classification after stopping his effort well before the line.
Kittel has lost only one sprint since the start and has been in a class of his own since Mark Cavendish and Arnaud Demare departed the race.
Wednesday’s stage was supposed to be what Tour riders call a “transition” day, an easier ride that took them to the gateway to the Pyrenees mountains ahead of two hard days of grueling ascents.
But stress was palpable in the pack towards the end, with several crashes happening at the back of the peloton.
Third overall, Frenchman Romain Bardet hit the deck and slightly hurt his knee but the AG2R La Mondiale was able to continue after changing bike and did not lose time.
Two-time champion Alberto Contador also fell with some 20 kilometres left while second-placed Fabio Aru lost one of his Astana teammates when Dario Cataldo was forced to retire with a broken wrist following a crash in the feed zone midway through the stage.
Fifth-placed Jakob Fuglsang, another Astana rider who was expected to play a key role alongside Aru in the mountains, was also caught in the crash and hit the desk but he was able to finish the stage. Astana sports director Dmitry Fofonov said Fuglsang hurt a wrist too.
Three riders — Frederick Backaert, Marco Marcato and Maciej Bodnar jumped away from the pack immediately after the start from the picturesque town of Eymet in the Dordogne, a tourist hotspot with its castles, caves and other sights.
They quickly built a lead of about four minutes over a laid-back peloton but their breakaway was slowed down by crosswinds on large, flat and straightforward roads. The deficit of the peloton was reduced to 30 seconds with 30 kilometres left when Bodnar attacked to go on his own, making the most of some favourable tailwind.
Bodnar went all out, using his time trial skills to resist the peloton’s chase as long as possible, looking for the best possible aerodynamics position in the downhill leading to Pau, but he was ultimately swallowed with 250 metres left.
Froome stayed safe in the pack and kept his overall lead intact before the battle between the main contenders resumes in the mountains.
The British rider has an 18 second-lead over Aru, with Bardet 51 seconds off the pace.
Trailing 55 seconds behind Froome in the general classification, Rigobero Uran remains in contention and Fuglsang stays within reach of the podium, 1:37 behind the yellow jersey.
Thursday’s Stage 12 is extremely difficult, with six categorized climbs — three of them either rated one or “hors categorie” — and a short but steep uphill finish to an altitude of 1,580 metres (5,200 feet).
Froome said he plans to keep his closest rivals on a tight leash in the mountains and expects two-time champion Alberto Contador to try and wreak havoc during Friday’s shorter stage to Foix. Contador has already lost 5:15 minutes overall but could derail Sky’s masterplan with relentless attacks on his favourite ground.
“He’s never shy to attack from far out. We’d be ready for that,” said Froome, adding that Sky is “not going to allow anyone to come back on GC.”