A day after pictures were needed to separate Mark Cavendish from Andre Greipel in Angers, Etixx-QuickStep’s Kittel took it by the finest of margins from Bryan Coquard of Direct Energie.
Peter Sagan crossed the line in third to retain the yellow jersey while Mark Cavendish, winner of two of the first three stages, came home in eighth.
Yesterday’s was the longest stage of the 2016 Tour at 237.5km from Saumur.
After the riders took nearly six hours to cover the 223.5km from Granville to Angers on Monday, the pace was thankfully faster 24 hours later – in large part thanks to a stronger breakaway. Markel Irizar (Trek-Segafredo), Oliver Naesen (IAM Cycling), Andreas Schillinger (Bora-Argon 18), and Alexis Gougeard (AG2R La Mondiale) went up the road early, building a lead that maxed out at six minutes.
That gap began to fall 100km out, and dropped to under two minutes with 50km left.
Gougeard was the first to be dropped, with the remainder swept up on a short hill seven kilometres from home.
Meanwhile, Tour de France great Bernard Hinault has backed Mark Cavendish to break the all-time record for stage wins in the race.
Cavendish’s win on Monday moved him level with Hinault on 28, second all-time to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34.
Hinault, the last Frenchman to win the Tour in 1985, was happy to see his tally matched. “It’s good, what he has done,” Hinault said. “I hope he has more than us. That’s the goal.”
Asked if the 31-year-old Cavendish could go on to catch Belgian great Merckx, he added: “Why not? He will need six more and he’s not old. He still has the possibility, I think.”
Hinault and Merckx each won five Tours – holding the record for most overall wins jointly with Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain.
As a sprinter, Cavendish will never win a Grand Tour, but his utter dominance among the fast men over the past decade is unquestioned.
Cavendish said after Monday’s win he had never as a youngster dreamed of a day when he would be mentioned in the same breath as the sport’s greatest, but Hinault was keen to correct him.
“Why would he not think like that?” he said. “It’s a goal in a career to say, ‘I am capable of going in search of this trophy’. Even if it is not a trophy, these are victories that accumulate one after another. That is the most beautiful thing of all about it.”