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TOURS, France (AFP) – Germany’s Marcel Kittel underlined his status as the top sprinter at the 100th Tour de France by beating Britain’s Mark Cavendish to victory on the crash-marred 12th stage on Thursday.

Kenyan-born Briton Chris Froome of Team Sky finished just behind to protect his 3min 25sec lead over Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and 3:54 advantage over two-time race winner Alberto Contador.

However, for the second time in three days Froome lost a teammate as Edvald Boasson Hagen abandoned due to shoulder injuries sustained in a late spill. Vasili Kiryienka dropped out after missing the time cut on stage nine.

Froome did well to stay clear of the late pile-up, and despite the flat terrain, he admitted: “It seems like there’s no such thing as an easy day on the Tour de France. It was a hard day out there.

“Every time I cross the finish line there’s a little sigh of relief.”

As Froome took another step towards an anticipated yellow jersey battle in the Alps beginning Sunday, Kittel matched compatriot Erik Zabel’s record for the most wins by a German in a single edition.

He also won the race opener and stage 10, when Cavendish came third having caused a crash which brought down Kittel’s Argos teammate Tom Veelers.

“I didn’t know that. But I’m proud of it,” said Kittel. “Today it was great to beat Cavendish in a straightforward sprint.”

Kittel, though, had one opponent fewer to deal with for the bunch gallop to the finish after compatriot Andre Greipel (Lotto) was delayed by a spill which brought down several of his teammates inside the last two kilometres.

Greg Henderson, Jurgen Roelandts and Marcel Sieberg all hit the tarmac and although they escaped serious injury the pile-up delayed Greipel sufficiently to end his sprint hopes.

Having suffered a bruised elbow in a first crash, Boasson Hagen’s second spill of the day ended his race and has piled unwanted pressure on Sky.

Team Principal Dave Brailsford added: “It’s a real shame for Edvald and a setback for the team that he’s been forced to abandon the race.

“It’s never nice to lose a rider of Edvald’s ability, but ultimately we’re still confident that with the riders we’ve got left we can pull together and see the race through.”

After Froome had weathered an attempt by Contador’s Saxo teammates to split the peloton with a turn of pace in the crosswinds 5km from the finish, the sprinters’ teams came to the fore.

When it came to the crunch, Kittel, racing his second Tour having quit with a viral infection on his debut last year, showed his previous wins were no fluke.

After the final bend helped thin out the group of frontrunners even further, Cavendish was brought on to the home straight in textbook fashion by Belgian lead-out man Gert Steegmans.

Kittel, however, jumped quickly on to Cavendish’s wheel in the final 250 metres and pulled off to the left to pass the Manxman with relative ease in the closing 50.

“In the final 200m I was able to sit on his wheel. We started the sprint together, and I had the best punch at the end,” added Kittel.

“I’m proud to know that I can beat the world’s best. We had worked and had prepared well before the Tour but when everything falls into place like this it is incredible.”

It was Germany’s fifth win from the 12 stages so far and prompted questions over the form of Cavendish, who has averaged a little more than four wins a year on the race since his maiden win in 2008.

But the Manxman, who has won only one stage so far on this edition, taking his career tally to 24, said he was beaten fair and square.

He said: “I could look at it again, but he was just faster.”

Photo Credit:  AFP/Jeff Pachoud

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