It was close – extremely, harshly, phantasmagorically – close, but there was no post-Cavendish cigar for Dimension Data in Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Boasson Hagen’s team bossed the lead-out to the finish of the 213.5km stage through the rolling vineyards of Burgundy, Bernie Eisel delivering the Norwegian and his pilot Reinardt Jacques van Rensburg to the front of the pack ahead of the flamme rouge.
The admittedly equally impressive Quick-Step Floors muscled in with Jack Bauer and Fabio Sabatini – after Julien Vermote’s indefatigable tempo-setting on the front of the peloton throughout the entire stage. But an inspired van Rensburg was not deterred and pulled his man back onto the front on the home straight.
It was as if the Tour had suddenly morphed into a Keirin race and van Rensburg was the derny.
The South African national champion motored on so ferociously that his elbow flick – with 150 metres to go – was not merely a signal for Boasson Hagen to put his foot down; it was as if, until then, none of the other sprinters were either allowed or physically capable of pulling through.
If the upshot of van Rensburg’s display of power was that all the action was condensed into the last hundred metres or so, then perhaps it was fitting that the margin of victory was so very slender.
Kittel – and he has a good knack for this – had the wheel or the right man as the road swept round a slight bend and the finish line came in sight.
Boasson Hagen, who later claimed not to be a pure sprinter, certainly sprinted like one. And were it not for a slight deviation of his line to the left – which opened the door for Kittel to take a more direct route to the line from behind – then the 30-year-old would surely have been celebrating his first Tour scalp since that brace for Sky back in 2011.
Instead, Boasson Hagen had to wait for what must have felt like an eternity before learning that he had lost out on the victory by 0.0003 seconds – or less than 6mm – according to Tissot, the official time keepers of the Tour.
From above, it looked like the Norwegian had it in the bag; but Kittel’s superior lunge at 70kmph instead gave the German his third win of the race – and twelfth of his career (equalling a German record set by Erik Zabel).
With the Tour entering the Jura mountains and the kind of terrain that may favour a break from Dimension Data’s Steve Cummings, a morale-boosting victory for Boasson Hagen would have set things up nicely and done a lot to heal the wounds following Cavendish’s controversial departure in Vittel.
Asked if he was pleased with his performance, Boasson Hagen remained stoic.
“Of course I’m happy with it but I would have liked to win,” he told Eurosport. “It was really close on the line and I’m really happy for the team. They did a really good job leading me out. It’s a pity I didn’t make it all the way to the line. I’m not a pure sprinter, so to be able to be up there on these flat stages gives me a lot of confidence for the remaining part of the Tour.”
It was also, perhaps, a pity that the Tour de France didn’t take the unprecedented steps of declaring Boasson Hagen and Kittel the first joint-winners of a stage in Tour history. After the controversies of Tuesday’s disqualification of Peter Sagan, it would have sent out a message of positivity and conciliation to fans.
Instead, it was a second photo-finish victory in as many years following Kittel’s win over Bryan Coquard in Limoges in the 2016 Tour. For someone so photogenic as Kittel, it’s perhaps no surprise that he comes out on top in a decision made by a camera.
Fittingly, the day Kittel drew level with Zabel was the day he took the green jersey off the shoulders of an out-of-sorts Arnaud Demare. Expect the pair to renew their sprint rivalry in Bergerac on Tuesday after a weekend in the Jura mountains.
Marcel Kittel back in green
Image credit: Getty Images