ON SUNDAY, L’Equipe’s front page had a headline that showed their keen understanding of Britain’s relationship with Germany.
“And at the end the Germans win,” it read, referring to Marcel Kittel’s Tour de France stage win in Harrogate and borrowing from Gary Lineker’s famous line about football being a simple game in which, “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
It applied yesterday, too, as the Tour’s three-day visit to England ended in central London. The finish was tailor-made for the sprinters, and one in particular – Mark Cavendish. But Cavendish is at home nursing a separated shoulder after his crash on stage one, leaving the path clear for Kittel, his big rival.
And it really was clear. On wet roads, which prompted Kittel’s Giant-Shimano team to take control further out than usual, Kittel swung on to the Mall in the perfect position, tucked in behind his lead-out man and ready to unleash his sprint. Nobody got close. After being presented with the yellow jersey by the Duchess of Cambridge on Saturday, Kittel won here on the Mall, in front of Buckingham Palace. Talk about rubbing it in.
“Emotionally, this win is close to the one I got on the Champs-Elysées in Paris last year,” said the German whose huge build and blond, sculpted hair make him an imposing figure. “Winning on The Mall, that’s what I dreamed of but even though I had a good chance to make it come true, it’s not something I could take for granted.
“On the finishing line, the crowd was fantastic. I love the atmosphere. This was one of the fastest sprints I’ve ever done. My job was 500 metres long but the biggest fight was already over. My boys had done a great job before that. I lost their wheels at some point but Tom Veelers brought me back to the wheel of Koen de Kort. Because of the rain, everybody was scared. But I didn’t let myself be disturbed and it’s a great day for us.”
The Tour continues in France today, no doubt in front of fewer people than have witnessed the race on its passage through Yorkshire and then from Cambridge to London. After fears that yesterday’s stage would be a bit ‘after the lord mayor’s show’, Cambridge was packed and the roads were lined for the 155km through Essex and Epping Forest, then past the Olympic Park (thereby satisfying some nebulous Olympic legacy pledge) before travelling up the Thames to Westminster.
After two thrilling days’ racing in rural Yorkshire yesterday’s stage fell a little flat, as though the riders called a truce after Sunday’s particularly gruelling trek from York to Sheffield, over nine classified climbs. It was no less than Vincenzo Nibali, one of the favourites for overall victory in Paris in a little under three weeks, who won in Sheffield to take the yellow jersey, expected. Yesterday Nibali’s lead was never threatened on the flat roads into London.
The explosion of interest has given the sport of cycling, and even the Tour de France itself, a huge boost, and the Team Sky principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, took some time at the end of the third stage to reflect on three memorable days on British roads. “We had our expectations coming into this race, about those first three stages, and what a terrific thing it’s been for everybody,” said Brailsford.
“We’re just filled with pride and gratitude for everybody’s support. What struck me, it reminded me how funny and witty we are as a nation. ‘Ey up Yorkshire, Ey Up Froomey,’ all sorts, just witty stuff. It was a terrific three days.”
Brailsford predicted a swift return to Britain, with the Scottish-led bid, which was foiled by Yorkshire this time, still on the table. “You’d like to think so,” Brailsford said when asked about a return. “With the level of popularity of the sport in this country at the minute it would be crazy not to.”
Given his ebullience on British cycling it was ironic that an interview in the morning edition of L’Equipe quoted Brailsford saying that he would like to mastermind a French Tour win. No Frenchman has won the Tour since 1985, when Bernard Hinault claimed the last of his five titles, but Brailsford – who is rumoured to be interested in signing the promising young French rider Warren Barguil – denied that this goal features highly on his bucket list.
“I think what I said was, it’s a bit like us with Wimbledon and Andy Murray, you wait a long time and then… This is the biggest cycling event every year and it would be great for them if a French guy won it.
“Let’s clear that up right now,” Brailsford continued. “My focus is on doing everything I can to support Team Sky riders to be on the podium and to help Chris [Froome] to win this race, [and] to inspire people in this country to get involved and to keep on cycling. The comment was more about a national event: if it’s won by the same nation’s rider, what a fantastic thing that can be. We’ve seen it with Andy Murray. It would be an exciting thing to see.”
The Tour leaves these shores with an Italian in yellow and a German with two stage wins in the bag. Indeed, everything went Kittel’s way until he reached London City Airport for the short flight across the Channel. “Big disaster at the airport in London,” he tweeted. “My hair gel did not make it through the security check.”