With eight more probable sprint stages before Paris, Sunday was probably just the beginning for Marcel Kittel but it could easily have been the end for Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas. The German rode to the 10th stage win of his career in a sprint finish here, with Mark Cavendish a promising fourth, but Froome and Thomas were both caught up in a massive, spectacular pile-up on wet, slippery roads 22 kilometres from the finish, although both men regained the field with only abrasions to worry about.
The crash occurred at the front of the peloton on the exit from a roundabout shortly before the final short climb of the stage, ironically enough after most of the field had survived a tricky passage on narrow cobbled roads through the soaking centre of the town of Aachen. Two riders in the first half dozen lost their grip – the man in front falling after the one behind him, presumably having heard him go down and then hitting his brakes – and at least 25 bodies piled into a traffic island, although at least one lucky man managed to bunny hop his way out of the chaos.
Five members of Team Sky were involved: Froome, Thomas, Luke Rowe, Michal Kwiatkowski and Christian Knees, and having picked himself up off the deck, the three-time Tour winner had to stop again a couple of kilometres later to change his bike. Thomas, meanwhile, was back in the peloton with his team-mate Mikel Landa, but felt under no pressure to stop and wait for his team leader. Another overall contender affected was Romain Bardet, who suffered a grazed knee but joined forces with Sky to regain the field.
“No injuries, thankfully,” said Froome. “I’ve just lost a little bit of skin on my backside. That’s the nature of the race. We knew that there were slippery conditions, and every time you put your race numbers on you take risks and something could happen.”
“No real damage, just a bit of skin,” was Thomas’s verdict. “The road was so slippery that you just slid.”
Most seriously affected was Sky’s road captain Rowe, who finished 13min 55sec back and was taken to hospital for tests on a slight head injury. It took Froome and his team-mates more than 10 kilometres to make their way back to the front of the peloton, by which time the finish close to the confluence of the Meuse and Orthe rivers was looming.
It was a hesitant sprint, with no team willing or able to take control, reflecting the pattern of recent Tours. As a result the final survivors of the day-long escape, the American Taylor Phinney and France's Yoann Offredo, were cruelly given just enough latitude to hope they might survive to the line before being scooped up just approaching the final kilometre.
“Every sprinter was on his own today,” said Kittel, who was without help from his team for the final 500 metres. “Our lead-out was not perfect, but others were non-existent.” The hulking German ducked into the slipstream of Bahrain-Merida’s Italian Sonny Colbrelli – as good a wheel as any – for a few seconds before emerging down the centre of the road to win by almost a bike length from the French national champion Arnaud Démare.
Cavendish never looked like matching the German, but was happy with fourth. “I surfed and I ended up on Marcel’s wheel, and I thought ‘perfect’, but when he went I was just sprinting on his wheel. There was no way I could come past him. It’s more than optimistic to think I’m going to win anything here, but I’ve got a better chance of winning if I’m here than if I’m sat at home.”
Not far behind, the Yorkshireman Ben Swift managed seventh in his first Tour sprint for six years, while the third British sprinter, Dan McLay, was not far off the pace in 14th.
Monday’s stage offers similar stresses but in a different context. The stage southwards runs initially through small towns familiar from the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic, then through Luxembourg before finally entering France for an uphill finish on Côte des Religieuses, close to the Vauban citadel at Longwy. As Thomas points out, that will favour a different kind of finisher – uphill specialists such as the Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, the Australian Michael Matthews and the world champion Peter Sagan.
The pressure will be felt by all the overall contenders who know that time can easily be lost here, so the finale will be hectic, and the pile-up was a reminder of the risks, if anyone needed one. The chances are that Thomas will retain the lead although the Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen may harbour ideas at just 16sec back with a 10sec time bonus for the win – and if Kittel and his fellow flat-earth sprinters lose time the Welshman could be set fair until Wednesday’s finish at La Planche des Belles Filles.