There can be no doubt that Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is back to his best as he claimed his fourth stage win of the 2016 Tour de France in Villars-les-Dombes. Cavendish left Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) to scrap for the minor places as he took his stage win tally in the Tour de France to 30, closing in further on the all-time record held by the great Eddy Merckx. There were no changes in the overall standings, with Chris Froome (Sky) retaining his lead over Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Adam Yates (Orica-Bike Exchange).
After three days that featured crosswinds, mountains, and a time trial, today must have seemed positively pedestrian to many of the riders, with it also presenting the final opportunity for the sprinters before the race rolls into Paris on Sunday.
The stage started with a minute of silence for those killed in the terror attack in Nice, and then it was back to business as usual for the Tour, with and an early attack heading down the road in search of glory. Cesare Benedetti (Bora-Argon 18), Martin Elminger (IAM), Alex Howes (Cannondale), and Jeremy Roy (FDJ) made up with move, and managed to build up a lead of four minutes, but with the teams of the sprinters desperate to have one last bunch gallop before Paris, the break never stood a chance. Even nature conspired against them, with a headwind slowing their progress.
The struggling break was close to being brought back a touch early, leading the peloton to ease the chase just a bit in order to prevent a new flurry of attacks going off the front.
The last remnants of the escape group were brought back into the fold with plenty of time for the sprinters to position themselves and get on with the business of winning the stage, and with Dimension Data having done a fair bit of the chasing, it seemed likely that they had confidence in Cavendish having come through the previous couple of days with his sprinting legs still intact.
Etixx-QuickStep took control of the front of the peloton, keen to deliver Marcel Kittel to another stage win, as behind the other teams including the Lotto-Soudal squad of Andre Greipel were fighting for superiority. Cavendish seemed to have confidence in the Etixx leadout train though as he positioned himself on the wheel of Kittel. With the race heading into a headwind, it seemed Kittel’s leadout train had miscalculated a bit, and his last leadout man swung over with 250 metres left to go, forcing the big German to open the sprint early. He never had a chance, as in turn he was providing the leadout for a selection of top sprinters in the race, with Cavendish having lined up behind him, and most of the other big names on Cavendish.
Prior to this year’s Tour de France, Cavendish did not have the most glittering record when it came to sprinting against Kittel; in fact, he had never been able to get the better of Kittel when the two went head to head. How the tables have turned, as Cavendish swept past his former bête noire to claim his fourth win of this tour, with Kristoff taking second and Sagan in third. John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and Kittel rounded out the top five, with Greipel taking sixth, still looking for his first win of this year’s Tour.
The overall classification remained unchanged, with Froome retaining his 1:47 lead over Mollema in second, with Yates a further 1:02 back. Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who must be banking on Froome and everyone else having a terrible final week in the mountains, is sitting in fourth at 2:59 off the race lead, with his team mate Alejandro Valverde a mere 18 seconds back, ready to pounce should his team leader falter.
Greg Henderson of Lotto Soudal crossed the line in the main peloton, having worked to try and line up André Greipel for a shot at the stage. Shane Archbold of Bora-Argon18 finished just behind the peloton in the company of Wilco Kelderman and Tony Martin George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo finished in a large group behind the peloton that included Rui Costa, Stephen Cummings and Fabian Cancellara amongst others.