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Emerging unscathed from a high-speed, late-race pileup, German André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) won the Tour de France’s stage 4 bunch sprint in Rouen Wednesday, finishing ahead of Italian Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and Dutch rider Tom Veelers (Argos-Shimano).
Aussie Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) finished fourth, with two-time stage winner Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) in fifth.
Conspicuously absent from the final sprint, however, was world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky), winner of stage 2, who, along with his leadout man Bernhard Eisel, went down hard in a crash with 2.6km remaining.
TV pictures did not provide a clear image of what, or who, caused the crash. Leading out American Tyler Farrar, South African national champion Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Sharp) was the first to go down, setting off a chain reaction of top sprinters hitting the deck.
After the finish, Eisel claimed that he’d crashed first; the Austrian had a significant cut over his eye that required stitches.
Led by Kiwi sprinter Greg Henderson, Greipel was in front of the crash, as was Petacchi; Sagan narrowly squeezed past the carnage, which split the peloton.
Approaching the finish line it was Greipel’s to lose, with Lotto’s Marcel Seiberg and Jurgen Roelandts at the front ahead of Henderson. It looked as though the big German might have started his sprint a bit too early, with Petacchi closing in on him late, but the Italian simply ran out of road, bringing Greipel his first stage win of this Tour, and his second career Tour stage win.
“I’m just so happy to have those guys on my side,” Greipel said moments after giving Henderson an enthusiastic embrace. “We have such strong riders leading me out. It’s what we wanted to reach, winning a stage.”
Japan in the break
Wednesday’s 214.5km stage traveled from Abbeville to Rouen, starting 81km south of Tuesday’s finish in Boulogne-sur-Mer and following the coastline until turning inland for the final approach.
Japan’s Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar) attacked as soon as the flag fell to signal the start of stage 4. Arashiro was followed by Frenchmen David Montcoutie (Cofidis) and Anthony Deplace (Saur-Sojasun).
The trio opened up a maximum advantage of 8:40 just 18km into the stage, with Moncoutie, a two-time winner of the King of the Mountains crown at the Vuelta a España, beginning his quest for the polka dot jersey over the stage’s four Cat. 4 climbs.
The breakaway crossed the day’s intermediate sprint in Fécamp with a 6:45 lead and 71km remaining. Behind, Cavendish narrowly outkicked Goss for the 13 points available to the fourth-place finisher, with Mark Renshaw (Rabobank) sixth, Sagan seventh and Petacchi eighth. Greipel did not contest the intermediate sprint.
The fight for the intermediate sprint picked up the pace considerably, as RadioShack, defending Fabian Cancellara’s race lead, shared the pace-making with the sprint teams.
With 25km to go, as a light rain began to fall, the three leaders had only a two-minute advantage; Sky, Lotto, FDJ-BigMat, Lampre and Orica-GreenEdge began dialing up the speed for the sprint into Rouen.
Inside 15km to go, the breakaway riders began to ease off the pace, prompting attacks on the uncategorized Saint-Martin de Boscherville climb from Andriy Grivko (Astana), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Samuel Dumolin (Cofidis), but none were able to hold the hard-charging peloton at bay.
With just under 10km remaining, the three escapees were finally reeled in. Arashiro was named the day’s most aggressive rider.
“The team said have a go if you’d like to, and I said I’d like to,” Arashiro said. “It would have been nicer to climb up on the podium, to be honest, but I’m happy to get my red number for tomorrow.”
Dumoulin, Chavanel and Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) forged ahead briefly, but with Orica and Lotto driving the pace, a field sprint was inevitable.
Just after the peloton crossed the 3km to go mark, the worst-case scenario became reality — a massive pileup at maximum speed. Eisel told Eurosport that he accepted the blame.
“That’s sprinters for you, isn’t it?” Eisel said. “It was going really, really fast. I touched Goss. I tried to correct it. I tried to stay on the wheel of Petacchi, but I lost my front wheel and that was it.”
After the crash both Eisel and Cavendish sat on the ground appearing dazed. Cavendish later rolled across the line alone, his white world champion’s jersey covered in black road grime and his yellow helmet broken.
At the front of the bunch, Henderson led out Greipel behind Lotto’s Marcel Seiberg and Jurgen Roelandts. Petacchi and Goss tucked in on Greipel’s wheel, but none could match the strong German.
“It was chaotic, the finale, to be honest,” Greipel said. “I was just focusing on what was going on, and for me, it’s fantastic.”
Cancellara finished without incident, maintaining his overall race lead.
“Today went how we thought it might, other than the crash, obviously,” Cancellara said. “I’m proud of the way I handled myself, with how I got away, and I’m just sorry for those that were on the ground.”
Beyond any potential injuries, and missing the opportunity for the stage win, the crash was devastating for Cavendish as his fight for the green points jersey took a substantial turn for the worse. By virtue of his fifth-place finish, Sagan now has 147 points; Goss sits second with 92, with Greipel third at 87 and Cavendish fourth at 86.
Cavendish got back to his team bus an angry man, but will live to fight another day according to Sky principal Dave Brailsford. “I can’t repeat what he said when he came into the bus,” Brailsford told French television. “Mark’s lost a bit of skin but it’s not bad. He’s in a little pain but he’s ok.”
Cavendish wrote on Twitter after the stage:
Ouch….. Crash at 2.5km to finish today. Taken some scuffs to my left side, but I’ve bounced pretty well again. Congrats to @AndreGreipel.
Sagan also offered his sympathy for Cav’s plight: “I’m disappointed for him. Every day someone can fall and I hope that he can get on and finish the Tour de France. I hope nothing like that happens to any of my teammates.”
For his part, Sagan was satisfied with a top-five result and another day in the green points jersey.
“I’m very happy,” Sagan said. “I’m happy that I’ve managed to get two stages so far and managed to stay up there and get points for the green jersey on a day like this. I was the last to make my way through the crash, I was really close to those guys. I just hope I stay on the bike and don’t fall off before I get to Paris.”
The 99th Tour de France continues Thursday with stage 5, a 214.5km affair from Rouen to Saint-Quentin that should result in another bunch finish. Hopefully, with less skin lost for the fast men.