Six millimetres. That was the margin that Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) had over Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) on stage 7 of the Tour de France from Troyes to Nuits-Saint-Georges. The advanced Tissot timing system clocked the difference between the two at 0.0003 seconds while arriving at the decision in favour of the German.
"First I heard that I had won, but then someone said it wasn't official and anything could happen," Kittel said in the mixed zone. "I regretted that I had already celebrated a bit and I could end up being runner-up. Anyway, I've given everything I had so I had no regrets, whatever the outcome would've been.
"I'm super happy. It's a huge achievement for me and for the team. They all work so hard, especially Julien Vermote. He probably did nearly 100 kilometres in front of the peloton to control the breakaway."
At first, Kittel didn't seem to feel sorry for Boasson Hagen but then he saw the finish photo. "Shit. That's shit for Edvald. I don't see it," Kittel said while zooming in on the finish photo with NOS TV.
"It was really close. Six millimetres decide over a lot of joy, or a big disappointment. I'm happy that I could throw my bike far enough to have six millimetres advantage. It's definitely a record for me, to get such a close victory. It's closer than the win over Bryan Coquard in Limoges last year."
When asked whether it should've been a tie, Kittel disagreed. "You think so? I'm sure the jury has more than enough options to judge on how many millimetres the gap was."
Dimension Data lost its main sprinter when Mark Cavendish abandoned the race with a broken shoulder blade after his run-in with Peter Sagan on stage 4, but Kittel was not surprised to see Boasson Hagen taking his place.
"After yesterday, I wasn't surprised about Edvald. He was really strong and fast, just a little bit too fast in front. He hasn't been in that shape for a long time."
After a long sprint on stage 6 and a very late dash to the line on stage 7, Kittel emphasised that flexibility was the key to victory.
"It's really difficult to repeat yourself. It's always different and you always have to anticipate with the team and make the right moves," he said. "Today, the right move was to go into the last kilometre already with Matteo [Trentin] and [Fabio] Saba [Sabatini]. Maybe a little bit too early but still in the right moment that I could then choose the wheel of Edvald Boasson Hagen. I don't know what we'll do in the next sprint."
Despite being on the right wheel, Kittel nearly missed his timing in Nuits-Saint-Georges. "I came around the last corner and thought there were still 200 metres to go, but there were only 120 metres left or so. I just tried to move up from there. I focused on the wheel of Boasson Hagen and knew I had to go flat out after the corner."
With three wins in the pocket, Kittel took over the lead in the points classification from French champion Arnaud Démare (FDJ), who was boxed in and only managed an eleventh place in Nuits-Saint-Georges. "I was surprised to get the jersey. It shows how quickly the classification can turn around. Paris is still far away. I'm not thinking about it. My mindset is set on getting the wins. With a win there are 50 points, the runner-up only gets 30 points."
Kittel leads the point classification with 197 points, 15 more than Démare.
The victory also put Kittel equal with the legendary Erik Zabel in the German record of most stage wins in the Tour de France. Kittel seemed content about this statistic but was already looking ahead. "It's nice to be only one stage victory away from the record. Equaling it now feels good. I really try to enjoy all these moments. I'm proud of every victory. I'm not racing for records. I'm racing because cycling makes me happy."
With Kittel already targeting the next stage win, he clearly has the winning spirit of his team manager Patrick Lefevere. The Belgian manager said he expected more wins from Kittel after yesterday. Kittel smiled when asked about how many wins would make Lefevere really satisfied. "It's Patrick's attitude to live for the victories and the success. I don't know if he has a number in his head that would make him really satisfied. Yesterday, he was already very happy with two wins. Of course, with three wins it's even better. There will not be any discussions if it stays at three, as long as we do our best."
Kittel was also asked how the negotiations were going, regarding an extended stay with the Belgian team. "The team discussions are still ongoing and there's not much more to say about that," Kittel said. As for now, it seems that Lefevere is in a position to come up with financial guarantees if he wants to sign riders. That would explain his recent quotes: "I'm not playing in the casino" and "I risk ending up as a beggar at 62 years of age."
As for now, Kittel is focused on the days ahead. That means keeping an eye on the intermediate sprint on Saturday and surviving the following climbs on Saturday and Sunday. "If there's a large lead group without a sprinter, then it's not up to us to chase. Now, it's finally time to start thinking about the rest day. It's not that far away anymore."