LIEGE, Belgium (AP) — The thriving current state of German cycling stood out in sharp contrast to the sport’s dirty past during the second stage of the Tour de France on Sunday.
As Marcel Kittel rode toward a commanding sprint victory to conclude a leg that began before large crowds in Duesseldorf, Germany, disgraced 1997 champion Jan Ullrich stood by the road as an uninvited spectator.
“It makes me really, really proud to see that this sport is now well accepted again in my home country,” Kittel said. “There was definitely a time where not so many spectators were standing next to the road. And those who were there were showing signs with EPO syringes or other (stuff).”
Without any teammates in the final 500 meters (yards) of a mostly flat stage concluding in Liege, Kittel wisely stayed on his rivals’ wheels before bursting ahead at the final moment for his 10th career stage win in the Tour.
Meanwhile, three-time champion Chris Froome had to work hard to catch up with the main pack after falling to the pavement amid a mass crash on a wet corner.
Froome’s Sky teammate Geraint Thomas held on to the leader’s yellow jersey.
Froome was near the front of the peloton when a Katusha rider ahead of him lost control coming around a sharp turn with about 30 kilometers (20 miles) to go. The domino reaction also took down last year’s runner-up, Romain Bardet.
Froome’s shorts and several layers of skin were torn and he had to change bikes as three teammates paced him back to the peloton.
“I have no injuries thankfully. I’ve just lost a little bit of skin on my backside,” Froome said. “That’s the nature of the race. We knew it was slippery conditions and every time you put the race numbers on there’s a big risk something could happen.
“Someone slid just a few wheels ahead of me and at those speeds you just can’t avoid it,” Froome added. “A few of us went down but thankfully everyone is OK and we got to the finish alright without losing any time to our rivals. That’s the main thing.”
Having won the opening time trial Saturday, Thomas remained five seconds ahead of Swiss rider Stefan Kueng in the overall standings.
With a 10-second bonus, Kittel moved up to third overall, six seconds behind Thomas.
Froome is sixth, 12 seconds behind.
“It was stressful. You kind of forget what the Tour is like,” Thomas said. “The weather didn’t help things at all.”
In the sprint, Arnaud Demare of France finished second and Andre Greipel of Germany crossed third in a banner day for Germany.
A day like this would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when German TV stopped broadcasting the Tour because of a series of doping scandals.
Ullrich was suspended in 2006 in the fallout from the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal in Spain and he retired a year later. There were also scandals involving prominent German riders like Patrick Sinkewitz and Stefan Schumacher. Even Erik Zabel, the popular rider who still holds the record of six green jerseys in the Tour’s points classification, admitted to doping after he retired.
These days, a new generation of German riders led by Kittel and Greipel — who have won 21 Tour stages between them — plus four-time time trial world champion Tony Martin and classics specialist John Degenkolb, have drawn German fans back.
The Tour of Germany, which was canceled in 2009, is slated to return next year.
While Kittel and other Germany riders had campaigned for Ullrich to be invited by Tour organizers to Duesseldorf, race organizers refused.
So Ullrich showed up on his own account instead in Korschenbroich, a town along the stage route.
“The image of cycling and also the way people see it now has changed. They understand this is a sport that had a very tough time, a very big problem with doping,” Kittel said. “They also, I think, understand that this is a sport that always has to pay attention to this heritage and that we are actively trying to work on it.”
As Kittel rode through Duesseldorf, he was close to shedding tears over the fan turnout.
“It was a really touching moment,” he said. “And a memory that I will never forget.”
There were more emotions at the finish, when Kittel dropped to the ground and started crying.
“It was a big goal to start in Germany and win at the end of that stage,” he said.
The Tour remains in Belgium for the start of Stage 3 on Monday, a 212.5-kilometer (132-mile) leg from Verviers to Longwy, France, that passes through Luxembourg. The rolling leg features three fourth-category climbs and two third-category climbs, including one at the finish. It should set up well for punchy riders like Verviers native Philippe Gilbert.