TROYES, France (AFP) - Marcel Kittel re-established his status as the king of sprints by winning the sixth stage of the Tour de France on Thursday (July 6).
It was his second stage win of this Tour and 11th in total, moving him level with German compatriot Andre Greipel, who was third on the stage behind Frenchman Arnaud Demare in second.
Kittel needs only one more stage win to equal the mark of 12 set by Erik Zabel, the most by a German.
"It's a nice situation for me that I can say now that I've won 11 stages on the Tour, I'm very proud of that," said the 29-year-old Quick-Step rider.
"I'm not really pushing myself for victories because I want to break the record of Erik Zabel, I just want to keep it coming, stay relaxed and get the best from myself and for the team in the sprints, and then see how far that can get me."
Kittel had dominated the sprints in 2013 and 2014, winning four stages in each Tour, but was absent the next year when Greipel matched that single Tour feat.
Last year, Mark Cavendish dominated with four stage wins but following this stage, Greipel said Kittel is the best in the business.
"Everyone knows that I have a lot of respect for Andre, he's also a great sprinter and a very fair and nice rider. I really appreciate those words," said Kittel.
Kittel is also bidding for a tilt at winning the green jersey for the first time this year as he closed the gap to leader Demare to 27 points - there are 50 points available to stage winners every day.
With Peter Sagan excluded form the Tour for elbowing Mark Cavendish in a muscular sprint finish on Tuesday, the race for the green jersey has come alive.
But Kittel said his main focus is on stage victories.
"The situation is different to the last years for sure," he said, referring to Sagan winning the green jersey in each of the last five years.
"Already before, I said I will only focus on getting stage victories, but that's also a way to score big points, which is really important for the green jersey."
Demare, who almost came a cropper along the barriers down the inside of Alexander Kristoff in the sprint finish to the 216km stage from Vesoul to Troyes, acknowledged that Sagan's absence changed things, but insisted he'd had a good chance of claiming the jersey anyway.
"Of course (it will be easier) but Sagan was already behind me when I took the jersey - it's going to be a big fight," he said.
'IT WASN'T IDEAL'
Demare also claimed that jostling in the sprint finish was part and parcel of the game.
While Sagan was castigated for causing Cavendish to crash, Demare got away largely scott free from criticism for a violent swerve that cut across the path of his copatriot Nacer Bouhanni in Tuesday's fourth stage, which he won.
Bouhanni, who was fourth on Thursday, was furious but no-one was paying attention to his ire in the wake of the Sagan saga.
"People always rub shoulders in the sprint finish, it's competitive. There are 10 or 15 people going for the stage victory," insisted Demare.
"No-one's blameless, we're all fighting for positon.
"I came second but I went through a mouse hole - it wasn't ideal."
Race leader and reigning champion Chris Froome had a quiet day in the saddle, barring one bizarre moment when he and several other riders had to take evasive action to avoid a parasol that blew onto the road right in front of the peloton.
Earlier, a three-man breakaway had set off inside the first kilometre but with more than 200km to ride on a pan-flat stage with powerful sprinters' teams controlling the gap, it was always doomed to fail.
They soldiered on, though, with a maximum lead of over three and a half minutes at one stage, but were caught 3km from the finish.