This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) opened his account at the 2012 Tour de France with a sprint victory in Rouen. The German came off the wheel of lead-out man Greg Henderson and powered to the stage win ahead of Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and Tom Veelers (Argos-Shimano).
However, the build-up to the sprint was marred by a crash with 2.5km remaining as several sprinters hit the tarmac, including world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky). Bernhard Eisel, Cavendish's teammate and Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Sharp) also hit the deck, with Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) lucky to escape the carnage.
But Lotto made their own luck, controlling the peloton through the final few kilometres and delivering Greipel to a winning position. It drew memories of HTC's former dominance, not just in the fact that five of Lotto's current cast came through the Highroad ranks but also in their efficient nature. While they assumed the mantle of responsibility the other sprinters, including Cavendish, were left fighting for their positions.
"I'm so happy today. I am so happy to have those guys on my side, such strong riders to lead me out. This is what we wanted to reach today, winning a stage," Greipel said at the finish.
Video: Tour de France stage 4 highlights (Courtesy: ASO)
Greipel, it must be noted, was the only top level sprinter to pass on competing in the intermediate sprint but Peter Sagan consolidated his lead in the battle for green with a sixth place in Fécamp. He also navigated through the crash to finish 5th on the stage, just one place behind Matthew Goss, who was never able to come on terms with his ex-teammate. Sagan now leads the race for green with 147 points with Goss next on 92.
The top of general classification remains unchanged as Fabian Cancellara continues in the yellow jersey with a seven-second lead over Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
Battered riders welcome calm start
After yesterday's chaos came the calm, with a 214 kilometre stage from Abbeville to Rouen. With no wind and only four fourth categorised climbs the peloton was in no mood to see a repeat of yesterday's events. So there was little surprise when a three-man break, comprised of Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar), Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun) and David Moncoutie (Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne), was allowed to escape.
With no GC threat in the break's ranks the trio was allowed to build its lead to over 8 minutes while the bunch meandered along the French coastline. RadioShack-Nissan, with Cancellara in yellow, was obliged to keep the gap in check and dutifully set tempo on the front.
The day's break worked hard to stay away
At the back of the bunch Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) nursed their broken bones, riding in single file with the sole ambitions of finishing. The gradual pace was a godsend.
At the intermediate sprint in Fécamp, Arashiro took the maximum points but the race behind briefly came to life when the peloton approached. Cavendish showed a clean pair of heels to Goss and Renshaw, with Sagan sweeping up a consolatory 9 points. Greipel's absence from the action was an ominous sign, though, and in his post-stage press conference he confirmed that the battle for green was of no interest.
With RadioShack-Nissan having performed the majority of the chase work it was the sprinters' teams who finished off the break's last ray of hope with 8.5 kilometres to go. FDJ-Big Mat, Katusha, Orica GreenEdge and Lotto Belisol showed their intentions while Sky and Rabobank briefly sat back.
An immediate counter-attack containing Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), only seven seconds off the race lead of Fabian Cancellara, plus Wout Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) gained a small advantage, but this trio, too, was neutralised with 3.5 kilometers to go.
And then the crash: Cavendish, Eisel and Hunter were among those involved, the Austrian left with a gash on his forehead, while the world champion was left sitting on the French tarmac, his stage hopes and green jersey aspirations almost over.
Sagan and Cancellara avoided the bodies and bikes but the peloton was shattered to pieces. Argos-Shimano, Lotto Belisol and Orica GreenEdge had virtually intact lead-outs but Lotto, with Henderson, Hansen, Roelandts and Sieberg, had the survivors in check.
"We had Lars [Bak] up at the front working," Hansen said at the finish. "Towards the end there was a bit of a climb and Lars held his position well. Then we had Jelle doing the climb. Then from the top of the climb, it was my job to keep them in front, using the guys from the other teams and sitting on them, always keeping a good position and then I let go about two and a half and there were two guys behind me from different teams and that was good. And behind them there was Sieberg, Roelandts, then Greg did his work and André finished it off. It was perfect."
Goss and Petacchi, the latter racing without a final lead-out man, were left to fight it out for Greipel's rear wheel but this was textbook Greipel. Often he can go missing in the messy sprints but if delivered to the final 200 meters he is Cavendish's closest rival. Petacchi made a late surge on the German's right but it wasn't enough, the Italian no longer the sprinter he once was.