Though today's route seemed to pose opportunities for a breakaway on paper, a strong headwind for most of the day hampered the hopes of the quintet of riders out front. The break was composed of Jerome Cousin (Europcar), Juan Jose Oroz (Euskatel), Luis Mate (Cofidis), Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil), and Julien Simon (Sojasun) and uncharacteristically slipped away in the first few kilometers, perhaps as most attackers in the peloton realized the futility of going into a headwind on a stage where the sprinters' teams would certainly want to contest the finish.
The break cooperated well, save for a little infighting for KOM points on the stage's only climb and the intermediate sprint. Behind, the sprint for the remaining points was more heated as Cannondale put six men on the front to lead out points leader Peter Sagan. André Greipel won the sprint after opening up early, taking points ahead of Sagan and Cavendish. There had been some speculation on whether Greipel and Cavendish would contest the sprint since they were almost 100 points in arrears of Sagan in the points competition already, though it appears there is still some fighting spirit left in the two.
The break's advantage hovered between 3 and 4 minutes for the majority of the final 100 kilometers as a lethargic peloton held off making the catch as long as possible. But, as the route shifted directions and the wind became a crosswind with 20km remaining, the pace picked up remarkably in the peloton as GC teams tried to split the bunch or, at minimum, keep their contenders out of trouble. Nothing was quite enough to split the bunch and the break was caught with some six kilometers to race, setting the stage for a four way battle between Greipel, Cavendish, Sagan, and Kittel. Lotto-Belisol had control of the leadout a kilometer out but lost ground to Kittel's surging Argos-Shimano teammates. Greipel jumped early as the road began to bend to the left, but Kittel was right on his wheel where he remained until the final 50 meters, coming by on the inside of a gradual bend to narrowly take the win in a photo finish that saw neither rider celebrating after the line. Behind, Mark Cavendish was left in fourth position leading into the sprint as his leadout misfired and lost power in the final kilometers. As Kittel's final leadout man Tom Veelers drifted backwards Cavendish rubbed shoulders in a move that, nine times out of ten, would not have led to a crash. This time, however, Veelers hit the deck, amazingly taking down no other riders with him as the peloton sped through the last 200m at speeds well in excess of 65kph.
Cavendish's contact came as he attempted to pass Veelers and swing to the left to follow Greipel and Kittel and follow the natural bend of the road and it appears Veelers may have intentionally slid a little to the right as he completed his leadout duties, a normal move for a leadout man trying to make opponents take the longest possible route around them to slow down their sprint. Though there was clearly no intention to make contact in either rider, there was speculation on whether Cavendish would be relegated in the sprint. He was not, but his third place finish immediately ahead of Sagan did little to help his hopes of surpassing the Cannondale rider in the points competition before Paris. All other competitions remained unchanged as Chris Froome enjoyed another day in yellow.
- Marcel Kittel (Argos - Shimano)
- André Greipel (Lotto - Belisol)
- Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma - Quickstep)
- Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling)
- William Bonnet (FDJ)