Tour de France: Marcel Kittel takes stage seven in photo finish

German rider claims third stage win of this year’s race after pipping Boasson Hagen

It would be a disservice to use the B word – boring – for sprint stages such as Thursday and Friday's, both won by Marcel Kittel and, on the way here, with not even a wayward, windblown umbrella to disturb the torpor in the peloton for much of the stage. Perhaps better to think of these days as resembling a good burgundy, which needs a long time to take in the air before producing something with a special savour to it.

Appropriately in a land where wine-making and tasting is a way of life, Kittel's second stage in two days was won by a nose. A very small one at that. This was one of the tightest stage victories the Tour has ever seen, eclipsing even last year's whisker-thin margin between Kittel and Bryan Coquard at Limoges. Having timed his run perfectly the previous day, Kittel again left his final effort late to sneak past Edvald Boasson Hagen in the final metres for his third win in seven days.

Even on the official judging camera, with a resolution of 10,000 images a second, this looked for all the world like a dead heat until the judges finally called it in favour of the German. The margin was stated as 0.0003sec, or 6mm. Tyres have increased in size in recent years – 25 or 28mm is now the norm rather than the previous 20 or 23mm, which is just as well when finishes are decided by a tread’s width.

Meanwhile, Dan Martin retained his fourth place in general classification, 25 seconds behind leader Chris Froome.


Without Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan, the sprints in this year's Tour can no longer be termed grand cru but the dash up the 5.5 kilometre-long finish straight was a decent vintage – premier cru perhaps – even if the morning's green jersey holder, Arnaud Démare, was a touch below his belligerent best due to a slight illness, relinquishing the jersey to Kittel after the finish.

The peloton turned right just before the five kilometre to go flag and sped up Route de Beaune helped by a stiff tailwind which pushed them to speeds approaching 50mph, with some riders visibly struggling to turn the pedals fast enough. The pace was set initially by Orica-Scott, clearly keen to keep Simon Yates out of trouble, then by Dimension Data, who have showed surprising keenness to get involved in the sprint finishes after Cavendish's departure with a broken shoulder on Tuesday, even though the all-rounder Boasson Hagen, fast as he undoubtedly is, has never really shown the absolute speed needed to press the specialists to the limit.

This finish suited the Norwegian better than most, however, being so fast that there was barely any chance for anything untoward to happen in the run-in. Boasson Hagen went early, which is the best option with a tailwind of this kind, as the first rider to jump will always have the advantage; it took the form sprinter of the Tour to beat him, by an infinitesimal margin, and it came down to Kittel’s final throw of his bike.

There has been a set pattern to these early stages, with the same teams getting in doomed breakaways day after day: Cannondale-Garmin, Fortuneo-Oscaro, Direct Energie, the Belgians of Wanty-Groupe Goubert, and latterly the UAE team. These flat-earth escapees target the intermediate sprint and mountains primes, and the all-important television time, but over the weekend, the escapes will have a different goal: these are days when an early move could well stay away to contest the finish and, with the Tour stages now shown live from the start, the opening kilometres could make enthralling viewing as each day’s move forms.

There is a gradual crescendo to the climbing in this Tour; after Wednesday’s mountain top finish, on Saturday the screw turns up another notch with third- and second-category ascents before the first-category climb to the Combe de Laisia Les Molunes, 12km from the finish at Les Rousses. That should give the race time to develop after the climb, but there is a strong chance that a winner will come from a long-distance breakaway, and perhaps a new yellow jersey depending on how Team Sky view developments.

Inordinately hilly – if never in a particularly massive way – after a flat first 30 kilometres, it is a stage that has the name of the British national champion Steve Cummings writ large on it. It should offer possibilities aplenty to Froome's rivals, but they have proved singularly unable to create openings in any of Team Sky's four Tour wins to date.

Ominously, Froome said that he felt Team Sky had had an easy start to the race. “Relatively speaking the guys are still fresh. We haven’t had to do a whole lot of work on the front.”

(Guardian service)

You can follow Dan Martin’s Tour de France diary in The Irish Times from tomorrow onwards