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VALENCE, France (VN) — It was a fast sprint, a tight sprint, but one that Andre Greipel was never going to lose. And with it, one arm punching the air and a victorious grin across his face, he stepped out of the long shadows of his competitors and into the sun.
The Lotto-Soudal rider won his third stage of this Tour de France Sunday, edging his hit rate to 75 percent, three of four sprint stages slung around his belt. He has lost but once in July. Should he lose on the Champs-Élysées, he’ll still have won three of five Tour sprint stages.
Sunday’s victory in Valence sent the German they call the “Gorilla” across a threshold. He is, for the first time in a long career, the dominant sprinter at the Tour de France, cycling’s greatest stage. No more playing second fiddle to a rival; no more lumping him in as a second-class sprinter, or an opportunist. No more shadows cast over him by Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) or Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin).
Shadows, yes, despite Sunday marking the German’s ninth Tour de France stage win. It’s a record any rider should be proud of, but compare it to Cavendish’s 26, or Kittel’s run of eight in just two years, and the angle of the sun for the past six seasons has always been clear.
Greipel, in contrast, has spread his nine wins over five years, chipping away but never dominant.
The German’s early years were spent in the shadow of Cavendish at HTC-Highroad, and despite his own success he’s always seemed stuck there. Headlines have been trained on the “Manx Missile,” untouchable; then Marcel Kittel, the new king.
He has chipped away, taking impressive win tallies each year — he has 122 total wins as a professional — and his fair share of victories over both Kittel and Cavendish. But there was always something missing, something that kept him from the marquee.
Perhaps it was a penchant, personal or team-ordered, for smaller races that left him playing second fiddle. Much of Greipel’s win tally over the years has come from smaller races — 16 wins at the Santos Tour Down Under, 10 at the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey, six at the Eneco Tour. This Tour de France, of course, proves he can win big at the highest level.
Or perhaps it’s his nature. Greipel is quiet, a personality that seems at odds with his physicality. He does not shout his greatness from the rooftops, or generate headlines with his mouth as much as his legs, as so many sprinters have before him. Where we’ve come to expect the brash, men like Mario Cipollini or Cavendish, Greipel is a sprinter who leaves his aggression and expression to the bike.
What is clear, regardless, is that this Tour has been Greipel’s. It has proven that he deserves to be placed in the pantheon of great finishers.
“I think all my career I was always fast, I was always there, I have a lot of victories, even in the Tour de France,” he said following Sunday’s win. “I’m working harder, to get better, to be more explosive, and even after the Pyrénées I was quite happy that I could find the power today, even if I was suffering from kilometer zero to end.”
Kittel’s absence, the result of a season-long battle with illness, puts no damper on the “Gorilla’s” success. The sprints have been fast, difficult; this is the Tour de France, where every rider is on peak form. That Cavendish has struggled, despite a strong team, is proof enough that Greipel’s victories should not be tainted by lack of competition.
“For sure the sprints are not getting slower, even with Marcel not here,” Greipel said. “We’ve seen quite a lot of interesting sprints here, everyone is in their top condition.”
How, at 33, has Greipel found a pair of world-beating afterburners?
Age begets experience, he said, and in this Tour’s tricky sprints — there have only been two pure, simple sprint days, one taken by Greipel and one by Cavendish — experience can make all the difference.
“You have to make the right decisions in the right moments, the team put me in the right spot, I believed in them,” Greipel said of Sunday’s stage, which finished with a long right-hand corner and a stiff headwind.
This Tour, which has seen the traditional transition stage all but disappear, is particularly suited to Greipel’s strengths. He’s stronger than the average bunch sprinter — recall his attacks in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) this spring — and therefore able to reach finish lines his compatriots may not.
An early victory was crucial, too. Greipel’s win in stage 2, against all the major sprinters, put his competition on notice and made him the wheel to beat, not just another rider jockeying for position.
“It helps when they are looking or my wheel and fighting for my wheel to have a good spot for the sprint,” he said.
A win on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Sunday put life in the shadows behind Greipel for good. But he’s realistic, as candid as he’s always been.
“Next Sunday is pretty far away,” he said, shaking his head. “My next goal is the rest day.”