LIMOGES, France (AP) — Hit by a virus, denied a place on the Tour de France and then parting company with his team, not much went right last season for German sprinter Marcel Kittel.
Now he's back with a vengeance.
Kittel claimed his ninth stage win at cycling's biggest race in a mass sprint on Tuesday, as the fourth leg of the Tour took the peloton from the medieval town of Saumur to Limoges in central France.
"For me the victory means a lot, because I know how hard my way back to this moment was," said Kittel, who was fighting back the tears at the podium ceremony.
Kittel, who wore the race leader's yellow jersey in 2013 and 2014, joined the Etixx Quick Step team from Giant-Alpecin for this season, replacing the departing Mark Cavendish.
The new partnership has been extremely successful so far. Kittel has been the dominant sprinter this year, claiming 11 victories including back-to-back stage wins at the Giro d'Italia.
At the Tour, he got off to a disappointing start, getting beaten by Cavendish in the opening stage and missing out on a chance to wear the yellow jersey. So when the German held off Frenchman Bryan Coquard's surge in a photo finish in Limoges, it was a huge relief.
"Last year was a huge setback. But I tried to take action to make changes for my future and to be able to win stages again at the Tour," Kittel said. "I live for my sport. I never did anything else — contrary to what some critics said."
Kittel began his final surge for the line a little too early for comfort. But he just managed to hang on and edge Coquard.
"I feel very emotional right now, it feels like my first stage win again," Kittel said. "I'm mega, mega happy. I'm very proud, because the team was really fighting for this win. Things went wrong in the last days, and I'm so happy to be back in the Tour and to win a stage like this."
World champion Peter Sagan finished third on the 237.5-kilometer ride and kept the yellow jersey. Courtesy of a time bonus, he extended his lead over Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe to 12 seconds in the overall standings. Spaniard Alejandro Valverde is third, 14 seconds back.
"It was a very fast sprint, I started too early today, the same time as Marcel started," Sagan said. "Coquard made a very nice sprint. He was patient and almost won."
Coquard's aggressive burst for the line almost paid off with his first stage win in cycling's showpiece event. He brushed shoulders with Kittel in the slightly uphill final stretch, but lost by a few millimeters.
"I think I belong with the greats now," Coquard said. "There is no mistake in the sprints, the stronger wins. I was never as close to victory, but I haven't won yet. I'm young, but I'm a winner... and I want to win this year on the Tour."
After a first attack fizzled out soon after the start, a group of four riders managed to escape from the pack and build up a five-minute lead over the peloton.
Tour debutants Oliver Naesen and Alexis Gougeard, alongside Markel Irizar and Andreas Schillinger, made their move near the 30-kilometer mark and quickly increased the gap, helped by a tail wind.
Determined to defend Sagan's yellow jersey, the Tinkoff team hit the front of the bunch to step up the pace in hot and sunny conditions. They organized the chase with sprint-specialist teams Lotto-Soudal and Etixx, and the gap was down to four minutes with 100 kilometers left.
However, the pack was in no rush to rein in the breakaway riders on the winding roads of the lush green Limousin countryside.
Gougeard was dropped from the leading group with 35 kilometers left, moments before the pursuit really started in the hilly finale to Limoges. The remaining trio was swallowed up during a short climb seven kilometers from the finish.
On the eve of the first mountain stage, the race's main favorites Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana enjoyed a quiet day. Froome, a two-time Tour champion, is in fifth position overall, 18 seconds behind Sagan. Quintana is seventh with the same time as Froome.
Wednesday's Stage 5 features four difficult climbs including the second-category Pas de Peyrol, the highest road pass in the Massif Central with an average gradient of 8.1 percent.