The sense that, although this may be Chris Froome's Tour, it is not a happy one for Team Sky strengthened on Thursday when a high speed crash two kilometres from the finish left the team's Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen with a broken right shoulder.
Team Sky confirmed in the evening that he would not remain in the race, meaning that going into the Alps, following the earlier elimination of Vasili Kiriyenka in the Pyrenees, Froome's support riders are down to six.
The super-talented, permanently smiling if somewhat impenetrable Boasson Hagen has been a mainstay of Sky's Tour efforts since the team was founded, winning two stages in the 2011 race and being a vital part of Bradley Wiggins's 2012 win. After the finish in Tours he was shepherded away from the team bus with his right arm in a sling after two crashes during the stage. The first fall left him with a bruised right elbow but it was the second, which occurred as the peloton lined up for the final sprint, which did the damage: a small fracture of the head of the humerus (arm bone) and the right shoulder blade, according to the Tour's medical report.
The loss of Boasson-Hagen means that Sky's margin for error and ill luck is decreasing rapidly. Last year they shepherded Wiggins to his Tour victory with seven riders after the loss of Kanstantin Siutsou early on. But they are now relying on Geraint Thomas recovering from his pelvic fracture and their two best climbers, Richie Porte and Peter Kennaugh, maintaining their form and health. They have adopted a strategy of having only Ian Stannard beside Froome when the flat stages are at their most hectic, as was seen approaching Tours, and at Saint-Malo on Tuesday; this will save legs for the Alps but it carries its own risks as well.
If Sky's capacity to back Froome is the biggest unanswered question of this year's race, there can be no more debate about an issue that has exercised cycling fans for the last two years: when – not whether – Marcel Kittel would fulfil his potential in the biggest event of them all. Kittel's stage win here places him at the very top of the sprint tree, being his third of the race, and the three remaining sprint stages in this Tour – Friday and Saturday and the final day in Paris – will confirm whether the 25-year-old German has surpassed Mark Cavendish and André Greipel. As of this week, he is the fastest man on the race.
Kittel's first stage win, at Ajaccio, came without Greipel in the pack due to a crash, and the one that did for Boasson Hagen's shoulder put "the Gorilla" out on Thursday. However, on Tuesday in Saint-Malo Kittel overhauled Greipel in the final metres and in Tours on Thursday he meted out the same treatment to Mark Cavendish; the Manxman got a perfect lead-out but, when he jumped, Kittel was able to match and pass him. As Cavendish's directeur sportif, Wilfried Peeters, confirmed. "Our tactics were perfect but Kittel is the strongest."
The finish was tricky, with two right-angled corners in the final kilometre, but by then the sprint had come down to two teams - Argos-Shimano and Omega-Pharma-Quickstep – as Greipel had been left in a tangle of men and machines 2km out. "I saw Mark coming past me, I knew I could get on his wheel and wait to start my sprint," said Kittel, giving the impression that it was a matter of routine. It was anything but.
Cavendish had no option but to accept defeat with good grace. "The team did everything perfectly, it was spot on today, it was a good duel between my team and Argos, but eventually he was just faster than me. You can analyse it but, if he's faster, there's nothing you can do." One possible solution may be to reunite Cavendish with his former leadout man Mark Renshaw, a partnership which was dissolved when the Australian did not move with the Manxman to Sky last year. The Omega-Pharma team head Patrick Lefevere has confirmed that Renshaw is likely to join them next year, although nothing has been signed.
With so few opportunities left, this is shaping up to be Cavendish's least successful Tour since he took his first stage win in 2008 and there is more fallout from Tuesday's close encounter in Saint-Malo with Kittel's team-mate Tom Veelers. The organisers of the first criterium after the Tour, in the Dutch town of Boxmeer, have removed Cavendish from their list of wanted riders, although it is a moot point whether he would have gone anyway as he is said to have a prior engagement on that day already.
"We have decided he is not welcome," a member of the organising committee, Pierre Hermans, told the Guardian. "The reason is the way he treated Tom Veelers. We had a list of favourites, he was one of them. The reason is not money, we have plenty of big companies in this town who would pay. I don't know if he is somewhere else that day. We are not going to ask him for sure." Cavendish was asked about the affair after the stage, and said, "I don't think I've had an invite anyway. So I wish them luck with the criterium." And, with two men down, his former employers at Team Sky will be hoping their luck holds as well.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Slabcity Gang