HARROGATE England (Reuters) - German Marcel Kittel powered to victory in the opening stage of the Tour de France on Saturday while Britain’s Mark Cavendish crashed heavily in the final straight.
Kittel, who also won the first stage last year, took the overall leader’s yellow jersey after easily outsprinting Slovakian Peter Sagan and Lithuanian Ramunas Navardauskas.
“It was so hard,” said the Giant Shimano rider. “The hill in the last kilometer made it very difficult to win. There were so many people that we rode the finale like in a tunnel with a terrible noise.
“It’s unbelievable I’ve won stage one again. I had good legs today and my guys did an excellent job. I feel sorry for Mark Cavendish and I wish him all the best.”
Cavendish, cycling in his mother’s home town of Harrogate, seemed too eager to succeed in the closing stages and collided with Australian Simon Gerrans with both riders taking a tumble.
After being helped by the race doctor Cavendish crossed the finish line with his right arm folded and clearly in pain.
The former world champion stayed for around 10-15 minutes in his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team bus before leaving in an ambulance.
“Simon is not to blame,” Orica GreenEdge sports director Matt White told reporters.
With huge crowds lining the mild ascents, the opening stage was a massive success as the Tour made its return to Britain seven years after London staged the Grand Depart.
The peloton kept a three-man breakaway group, which featured German veteran Jens Voigt, on a tight leash.
The 42-year-old Voigt, taking part in a record-equalling 17th Tour de France, went solo after the intermediate sprint, leaving Frenchmen Nicolas Edet and Benoit Jarrier behind.
The move earned him the polka dot jersey for the mountain classification.
The stage was no walk in the park and several riders, including Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez and top French hope Thibaut Pinot, were caught off guard when the peloton split.
They made it back to the bunch who were slowed by the big crowds on some narrow roads.
Defending champion Chris Froome of Britain was sixth.
Kittel was never threatened in the sprint which he started about 400 meters from the line.
“It’s unbelievable - we did it last year and we’re doing it again this year. Everybody knows how hard it is. It’s something really special and I’m happy to support him,” said Kittel’s team mate and compatriot John Degenkolb.
Sunday’s second stage is a treacherous 201-km trek from York to Sheffield.
Writing by Julien Pretot, editing by Tony Jimenez