The German, who specialised in the discipline in his junior days, clocked 11.14 to finish fifth on the flat 9.8km course in Apeldoorn, leaving himself just 11 seconds back on stage winner and first race leader Tom Dumoulin.
His time was comfortably the best of the many sprinters in the race and, with two flat stages to come in the Dutch Grande Partenza, bonus seconds could elevate him into the second Grand Tour leader's jersey of his career after he wore yellow at the Tour de France two years ago.
"11 seconds, I just heard, the third best time so far. That's good – I can be very happy with that," Kittel told reporters in staccato rhythm, still panting after recovering from a ride he had clearly put a lot into.
The 27-year-old, who has given his teammates pink bracelets engraved with the words 'We fight for pink and glory', recognised in his pre-race press conference on Thursday that pink might be a possibility, but remained coy about talking up his chances. That remained the case after the time trial, despite the first piece of the puzzle being put in place.
"I'm a sprinter, not a GC rider," he said when the inevitable question came. "The pink jersey would be a great extra but it's not the main priority; I came here to concentrate on the sprints.
"I would be very happy if a good result in the time trial makes more options possible but I won't give my team and myself the pressure of going for the pink jersey."
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There are bonuses of 10, 6, and 4 seconds for the top three finishers on stages 2 and 3, each of which has an intermediate sprint offering 3, 2, and 1 seconds. While the intermediate bonuses will likely be snaffled up by breakaway riders, Kittel needs a stage win and a podium finish – or two second places – to take pink. He is the only rider – barring crashes or unlikely breakaway victories – for whom it is feasible to wrestle the jersey from the shoulders of Dumoulin before the race hits Italian soil. The closest sprinter behind Kittel is Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) at 25 seconds.
While Kittel remains reluctant to think about his performance today in the context of the pink jersey, it does bode well as an indication of form compared to his rivals. The German is probably the strongest against the clock of the fast men here anyway, but he described how time trials are an 'honest' test of who has good legs.
"It's pretty simple; you just go 98 per cent the whole way to the last 500 metres, and then you go 110 per cent. It's a very honest discipline; if you're good you'll have a good result. It depends a bit on technique but if your legs are good you will do well," said Kittel.
"I'm very happy with my time trial. We'll have to see what happens now. I feel good, the team is strong but the competition is also strong.
"We can now be confident in the sprints, which are the main priority."
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