Tour de France 2014: Marcel Kittel makes most of Mark Cavendish absence by claiming sprint crown on The Mall in London

UK spell of the race comes to an end

It could hardly have been a more appropriate setting: just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, Germany’s Marcel Kittel was crowned King of the Tour sprints today as he captured a near-faultless bunch sprint win for the second time in three days.

Kittel’s superiority was such that by the time he crossed the line, the 26-year-old Giant-Shimano rider was more than two bike lengths ahead of his nearest opponent Peter Sagan – in sprinting, the equivalent of country miles. This was partly due to a superb lead-out from his team-mates, as first John Degenkolb  and then Tom Veelers guided the German into pole position for the final dash along The Mall. But ultimately it was up to Kittel to deliver – and deliver he most certainly did.

Already leading the pack on the flat, broad boulevard, he needed barely a dozen pedal strokes before he crossed the line with his arms aloft. Behind him, with Kittel safely en route to success, his team-mates raised their arms in triumph, too, as they freewheeled towards the line and a round of celebratory hugs.

Sky rider and Tour favourite Chris Froome avoided any calamities and came home in the pack to continue his solid start to the race. “It was a tough stage and tricky coming into London,” Froome said. “There was a lot of road furniture but again there were just massive, massive crowds out there. We did get a little bit wet in the final part but I suppose it wouldn’t have been a British start without a bit of rain! It was a good day for us and we’re three days into the Tour now. It’s a good feeling.”

For Kittel it’s all about the wins. “It’s a big relief to have got two victories so quickly,” he said. “Winning here feels as good as winning on the Champs Elysées last year. People shouldn’t think this gets any easier, sometimes we make mistakes. It was a stage, though, made for a sprint, much more so than Saturday” – where Kittel had won and taken the yellow jersey to boot – “where it was much less flat and the racing was harder.”

Kittel gave a wry smile when asked if he could ensure he would not imitate his performance in May’s Giro d’Italia, where he took two stages out of the first three – but then abandoned 24 hours later with a fever. “I will take care this time,” he said.

In fact, the only question mark over Kittel’s win was the absence of Mark Cavendish, who will undergo shoulder surgery that will rule him out of the Commonwealth Games after his crash on Saturday. “It’s worse than I was hoping,” he said yesterday. Given yesterday’s stage location, the lack of the British sprinter was even more noticeable.

However, Cavendish could not beat the German in last year’s Tour on three attempts, and going on the margin by which Kittel has had the measure of the opposition so far, it seems unfair to doubt the German’s superiority.

Cycling fans await the riders on The Mall

“Without Cavendish, there is still plenty of competition,” Kittel said. “Don’t forget [French champion] Arnaud Démare and [German sprinter] Andre Greipel.” They were not the most dangerous challengers on Monday though: they finished 14th and 23rd.

Only further sprints will resolve this debate, but the one clear difference, as Kittel pointed out, is that “without Mark there aren’t as many teams controlling the race, and that is something we have to take into account.”

That said, Giant-Shimano kept the stage’s breakaways on a tight leash in a manner which Cavendish would have commended. As the race wended its way through the wind-rippled cornfields of Essex, two early attackers, Czech Jan Barta and France’s Jean-Marc Bideau, were given enough margin – four minutes – by Kittel’s squad to deter other potential challengers, but not so much that they would not be reeled in before the finish.

By the time the Tour crossed the border into Greater London, the two riders’ advantage had been halved, and as they began the long haul towards Buckingham Palace along the Thames’ north bank, it was clear they were doomed to be caught.

As the odd rain-shower pelted down and a nervous-looking Alberto Contador came close to the front and barked order after order at his team-mate, Barta briefly shed Bideau, but he could not hold off the peloton for much longer. Then, after one late crash caused two outside overall favourites, the brothers Andy and Frank Schleck, to lose just over a minute, Giant upped the pace still further for Kittel.