Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) wasted no time whatsoever in his quest for success in this year’s Giro d’Italia, roaring past Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) on Saturday to claim the first mass start stage of the race in Belfast.
Bouhanni had led out the sprint when the peloton blasted round the final corner of the 219 kilometre loop across Northern Ireland and back to the rainsoaked streets of Belfast. But Kittel fully lived up to his status as top Giro d'Italia sprint favourite by streaking past the former French national champion and claiming his first stage win by more than two thirds of a bike length.
For the Giant-Shimano rider his fifth victory of 2014 also completes his ‘set’ of Grand Tour wins, with one bunch sprint win in the Vuelta in 2011, four in the Tour de France last year and now his first in the Giro. After managing to get through the hilly, rainy conditions that predominated on Saturday, victory on stage two also sets the German up firmly as top favourite for Sunday’s flatter run down to Belfast - and looking beyond that, for Tuesday’s climb-free first stage on Italian soil - from Giovinazzo to Bari - as well.
"Honestly it wasn’t that easy to stay in front with the team today [Saturday], I lost them a few times then I had to get to the front after the last corner," Kittel told reporters afterwards.
"I’m proud to have won the stage, it was a hard day in the rain and I’d like to say thanks to my teammate Tom Stamsnijder for the huge work he did to get the break back."
Asked if he was the fastest sprinter in the world or to name the top five fastest, Kittel deftly dodged any potential controversy by saying "I don’t think it’s up to me to make a ranking, I won’t do that.
"I know which riders I have to watch, I keep my eye on them. The two main guys [rivals] are a British sprinter and a German one, [Mark] Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and [André] Greipel (Lotto-Belisol)."
"Here [in the Giro] you saw Bouhanni and [Elia] Viviani (Cannondale) are big challengers and that’s who we will concentrate on. In any case, it’s a big error to be arrogant and to think it’s easy to beat people."
It was pointed out that Kittel’s latest victory, his fifth of 2014, will do no harm to Giant-Shimano’s chances of continuing as a team beyond the end of the season. "Our contract runs to the end of the year, and it may be well be extended, so I’m not worried, I trust the management and that’s all I can say," he commented.
So many victories as a pro also almost inevitably increases speculation, too, that the German may seek to raise the bar and look for other objectives, like the Giro points jersey, but Kittel argued that was "something for the future."
"For now I’m only focussing on stage wins, and I’m really proud I could win a bunch sprint stage in all three Grand Tours. It’s a big relief to get that, and a nice goal as a cyclist. I’m specially proud, too, that there are still some riders on the [Giant-Shimano] team who have won all three of those Grand Tour stages with me, and I think that’s very nice for the team as well."
The question of Grand Tours was also present in the press conference in another way, with Kittel asked if he take the well-trodden path of some top sprinters in the Giro - but by no means all - and leave the race early in order to rest up for the Tour.
His answer hardly helped clear up any speculation: "I said already in the [pre-race] press conference, I will see what happens, maybe the race will decide that for me, and then there’s no point in answering now. So I will maybe take it day by day," he argued.
After two days racing, Northern Ireland, in any case, is almost completely in the race’s rear-view mirror now, and Kittel smiled when asked what memories he would take away with him of Ulster - other than winning.
"The first thing is a lot of rain, and the second thing an amazing atmosphere, even with all the rain," he said. "There were so many people on the roadsides, some only in shorts and t-shirts, I don’t know how they did it. But it was really cheering for us, very cool to see."
Next on his and the Giro’s agenda is Sunday’s 187 kilometre run into the Republic and down to Dublin, and given May 11th is also Kittel’s birthday - he will be 26 - there is the question of whether Kittel will receive any stage win-shaped presents tomorrow.
"I don’t know if I will get a present," he argued, "although another win for my birthday would be great."
"There’s no real pressure, anyway, as a team we will just have the same approach as today and see how it goes and then we will see where we end up."