LONDON – At this point, the top Tour de France sprinter might be called Sir Marcel.
Marcel Kittel, the German with a French first name, led a bunch sprint to win Monday’s third stage with a finish near the doorstep of Queen Elizabeth’s Buckingham Palace.
Two days earlier, Giant-Shimano cyclist Kittel courted royal attention as Prince William and Kate saw him win the opening stage in Yorkshire in another sprint.
The third stage wrapped up the English debut to this 101st Tour, a rousing success among cycling-crazed British fans. Riders hopped on planes and bid au revoir to the U.K. before flying across the English Channel onto the race’s home turf.
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Tour officials estimated fans made nearly 5 million individual visits — some might have attended more than one stage — to the route in the first three stages,
Rain in London doused riders at the end of the 96.3-mile ride from the university town of Cambridge to a dramatic finish past landmarks such as Big Ben.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali of the Astana team retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey with a two-second lead over the most likely contenders to win the 21-stage race that ends July 27 in Paris.
Kittel, led out perfectly by teammates, made it look easy as he sped down a final wide approach on The Mall with Buckingham Palace behind him.
Cannondale rider Peter Sagan of Slovakia was second and Australian Mark Renshaw of the Omega Pharma — Quick-Step team was third.
“I’m really, really happy I could win in front of Buckingham Palace,” said Kittel, who won four Tour stages last year. “It was one of the greatest finishes I’ve ever seen in front of this great scenery.”
The powerful German made it a tale of two cities. He added London glory to his record after also winning on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, in the final stage of last year’s Tour.
Kittel’s job in the sprints got easier when Britain’s Mark Cavendish pulled out of the race after injuring his shoulder in a crash in Saturday’s opening stage.
“It’s one big opponent that is not in the race anymore,” Kittel said. “Of course, that changes things for me, but also for the team.”
Kittel is not considered a threat to win the Tour. Like many sprinters, he struggles on climbs and fell nearly 20 minutes behind Nibali in the overall standings in an up-and-down ride Sunday.