Echelons are normally a common sight at the Classics, but this season they have been few and far between. They finally delivered, however, on the third stage of the Three days of De Panne, and when Quick-Step Floors saw the opportunity, the Belgian team grabbed it with both hands.
With Philippe Gilbert’s nearest rival, Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott), caught behind, Quick-Step – with plenty of help from Katusha, Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo – hammered the advantage home. Marcel Kittel and another of his teammates were two of the last to make the cut, giving Quick-Step four in the leading group and a shot at victory as well as a tightened grip on the general classification.
"After the Kemmelberg, we had to make the decision to race, and we raced for it, for Phil’s leader’s jersey but also for the stage win," Kittel told Cyclingnews just before riding back to his team’s hotel. "The race split up after we passed the hilly zone, and then you could really see that we came to De Moeren, a place where it is always very windy, and it started to break.
"It was definitely a tough day," Kittel said.
The advantage over Durbridge hovered around the 30-second mark for much of the final 40 kilometres, but as the riders passed the eventual finish line for the penultimate time the desire for the chase appeared to be gone. By the time they crossed for the finish, Durbridge was well over two minutes down, and Matthias Brandle would replace him as the second-placed rider overall, sitting 50 seconds behind Gilbert.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away
While Quick-Step was able to take advantage of the winds to stamp their authority on the GC, Kittel was unable to master the gusting headwind at the finish. The German tried to go early to get the jump on his rivals, but Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) called his bluff and took a rare win over Kittel.
"I thought that I better go left at the finish line because the headwind was really strong," explained Kittel. "I started 220, which was pretty early I think with the headwind, but then Alex also went pretty early. He was very strong and he did a good sprint. I didn’t know how I could have beaten him, maybe from the wheel but I made a choice, and that’s the way that it is."
Rather than taking it out on his bike, as he did when bad positioning saw him lose out on the same finish in 2014, Kittel says that he will try to use his frustrations to his advantage in the coming days.
"It is what it is now. I am third, which is still a good result. I was hoping for more," he said. "We still have the morning stage tomorrow. Of course, I’m disappointed, but I don’t want to give up too early. I still have a chance tomorrow, so I can leave all the anger out there and also in the time trial."
Kittel’s main focus in the coming days will be next week’s Scheldeprijs, where he is looking to take a fifth victory.