LONDON — At this point, the top Tour de France sprint star could 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, 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 to the race’s home turf.
Rain in London doused riders at the end of the 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 on the most likely contenders to win the three-week race in Paris on July 27.
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 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.”
The hulking German 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 Saturday.
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 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.
Tour officials estimated fans made nearly 5 million individual visits to the route in the first three stages. In signs of cross-Channel courtesy, Tour chief Christian Prudhomme took English lessons before the race, and Britons waved both French tricolors and their beloved Union Jacks.
But the teeming curbs, sidewalks and roadsides again caused trouble. With about 19 miles left, 2010 winner Andy Schleck of Luxembourg was among riders who crashed, and French TV showed a fan on the ground. Schleck, who gingerly returned to the race, said he didn’t hit a spectator.
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.”
The course route Monday notably bypassed Trafalgar Square, whose landmark Nelson’s Column commemorates a British hero of the Napoleonic Wars.
Stage 4 moves to France and takes riders over 105 miles from Le Touquet-Paris Plage to Lille Metropole on the border with Belgium.