LONDON – At this point, the top Tour de France sprint star might be called Sir Marcel.
Marcel Kittel, the German with a French first name, led a bunch sprint to win Monday’s Stage 3 with a finish on the doorstep of Queen Elizabeth’s Buckingham Palace. Two days earlier, he courted royal attention as Prince William and Kate saw him win Stage 1 in Yorkshire in another sprint.
The stage wrapped up the English debut to this 101st Tour edition, a rousing success among cycling-crazed British fans. Riders hopped on planes and bid “au revoir” to the UK before flying across the English Channel onto the race’s home turf.
Rain in the City of London doused riders at the end of the 155-kilometre (96-mile) ride from the university town of Cambridge to a dramatic finish past landmarks Big Ben and Westminster.
Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey with a 2-second lead over the most likely contenders to win the three-week race in Paris on July 27.
Svein Tuft was the top Canadian in 138th place, 16 minutes 13 seconds off the lead. Christian Meier, also from Langley, B.C., was 17:31 back in 154th.
Kittel, led out perfectly by Giant-Shimano teammates, made it look easy as he sped down a final wide approach on The Mall with Buckingham Palace behind him. Peter Sagan of Slovakia was second and Australia’s Mark Renshaw 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.”
FIRST PARIS, NOW LONDON
The hulking 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 Tour finale last year. His job in the sprints got a lot easier after Britain’s Mark Cavendish pulled out of the race after injuring his shoulder in a crash in Saturday’s Stage 1.
“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 no threat for the yellow jersey. Like many sprinters, he struggles on climbs and fell nearly 20 minutes behind Nibali in the overall standings in an up-and-down ride on Sunday through the hills and dales of Yorkshire.
Nibali’s biggest challengers for the prized leader’s shirt remain title-holder Chris Froome of Britain and Spain’s Alberto Contador, who finished with the same time as the Italian and Kittel in an 84-rider bunch.
On Monday, the pack cruised nervously and let two breakaway riders go free on Monday. The duo was caught with about 6 kilometres (4 miles) left.
EUROPEAN UNITY AMONG FANS?
Tour officials estimated fans made nearly 5 million individual visits — some may have attended more than one stage — to the route in the first three stages. In signs of cross-Channel comity, Tour chief Christian Prudhomme took English lessons before the race; Britons waved both French tricolours and their beloved Union Jacks.
But the teeming curbs, sidewalks and roadsides again caused trouble for the riders. With about 30 kilometres (19 miles) left, 2010 Tour winner Andy Schleck of Luxembourg was among riders who crashed briefly, and French TV showed a fan on the ground. Schleck, who gingerly returned to the race, said he didn’t hit a spectator.
“I guess it was my own fault,” said Schleck, who collided with another rider and hurtled over his handlebars.
His Trek Factory Racing teammate Jens Voigt said: “I saw about 15 crashes today. In the end there were two guys on the ground but I don’t know what happened exactly … That’s the Tour de France. The first week is always nervous.”
In other spills, Ted King of Cannondale and Jan Bakelants, a Belgian rider on Cavendish’s Omega Pharma QuickStep team who wore yellow jersey two days last year, each scraped up their right elbows and knees.
Some fans got political. A few held up placards imploring Prime Minister David Cameron not to back a U.S.-European Union free trade pact. Three topless protesters bearing slogans condemning female genital mutilation staged a brief protest near the Houses of Parliament before police bundled them away in fluorescent vests.
The course route Monday notably bypassed Trafalgar Square, whose landmark Nelson’s Column commemorates a British hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Stage 4 takes riders over 163.5 kilometres (105 miles) from Le Touquet-Paris Plage to Lille Metropole on the border with Belgium.
Froome’s Team Sky floated the idea that the pack might well ride under the sea rather than fly over it one day, if the Tour ever returns to the UK. The team released a glitzy video Monday saying that last month he became the first man to cycle through the Channel tunnel.
In the video, Froome quipped: “This could be a really, really cool stage of a race.”
AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin contributed from London.
© The Associated Press, 2014