LIMOGES, France (CT) – Before today, Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) already had 10 wins for the season. But after his victory on stage 4 of the Tour de France, there can be little doubt: the German is back to his very best.
But the win was far from easy. Just as yesterday’s third stage went to a photo finish, so too the winner of stage 4 wasn’t clear when the peloton flew across the line.
As he sat on the ground just past the finish, surrounded by journalists and photographers, Kittel himself wasn’t sure he’d won. That was until a member of his team staff gave him the good news.
“I heard it from Steven, our physio. He was there with me,” Kittel said in his post-race press conference. “They were saying something in the speaker and then suddenly Steven was saying ‘You won, you won!’ and all the emotions came over me and I gave him a big hug.”
Where Kittel’s realisation was a moment of ecstasy, it was a moment of palpable disappointment for second-placed Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie), beaten by mere millimetres in his quest for a maiden Tour stage victory.
For Marcel Kittel, the joy of victory had two aspects: the satisfaction of getting back to the very highest level of the sport, and the satisfaction of making amends for a frustrating first three days of Le Tour.
“This is a very very important day, not only this year but I think in my career, to show really on the highest level of cycling that I’m back, that I can win even if it’s a 237km stage with an uphill finish,” Kittel said. “A second thing which actually makes me even more proud, is that the team that had so much pressure in the last three days, so many expectations, that we could really turn our head around.
“We came here with a goal to win a stage of course — we had the first stage already on our mind and wanted to take the yellow jersey. It didn’t work; it was ‘only’ a second place, and then a day after Julian [Alaphilippe] got only second — still good results but not what we wanted. And to make it even worse we really messed up the third day; the third chance to go for victory.”
On stage 3 to Angers, won by Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Kittel could only manage seventh place. “We were too early, too nervous — we didn’t really follow our plan,” Kittel said. In an attempt to prevent a repeat performance, the Etixx-QuickStep riders convened after stage 3, trying to analyse the mistakes they’d made.
“I tried to give the confidence back to the boys because I know we have the power,” Kittel said after winning stage 4. “We have great experience in the team actually — and we don’t have to do mistakes like we did on the third stage.
“Today in the final, they stayed really cool as ice and came in the right moment to the front — that’s the killer instinct that you need and I knew we had it in us and today we also showed that, and that makes me very very proud.”
It wasn’t until 800 metres to go that the Etixx-QuickStep lead-out train moved Kittel into position ahead of the uphill dash to the line. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was the first to launch his sprint, followed by Kittel, Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and overall leader Peter Sagan (Tinkoff). Kittel soon hit the front and while the others faded, he was able to power on to the line, just holding off the late-charging Coquard.
For Kittel’s teammate Dan Martin, it was something of a surprise that Kittel was able to contest the final sprint, let alone win it.
“On the climb with about seven kilometres to go, I could see that he was really suffering,” Martin told CyclingTips. “He drifted back. I didn’t see them [the lead-out train] come back past.
“When I crossed the finish line and I heard he won, I thought, ‘wow.’ That was a really, truly, special ride. I don’t think it was really a sprint for him either.”
Like Martin, Kittel is in his first season at Etixx-QuickStep and both riders seem to have been revitalised by a change of scenery.
“I think he is a very similar position that I have been in this year. It is rejuvenation. And this team plays a huge part in that,” Martin said. “The way the directors talk to us, the way they inspire us, the way they instil confidence. It is just to great to see.”
After a 2015 season that was all but lost to illness, Kittel has bounced back in impressive fashion in 2016. But despite all his victories so far this year — including two stages of the Giro d’Italia — it’s today’s that is the most demonstrative.
“For me, the victory means a lot because I know how hard the way back to this moment was after last year being sick so many times, missing out on the Tour but also many other race days during the year,” Kittel said. “That was for me personally a huge setback and a very difficult moment in my career.
“To be again on the level where I am now, to win stages of the Tour, to be successful during the season, to see it now working so well — although the start of the Tour was not what we wanted — is a huge relief.”