In the third bunch sprint of the 2016 Tour de France there was – finally – victory for Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep). Finally, because in a horrible season in 2015 with very little race days due to illness, the German top sprinter managed only one pro win.
He moved from the Giant-Alpecin team to the Etixx-QuickStep team and rediscovered his fast legs. Finally, because the confidence was dropping after two missed opportunities in this Tour de France, resulting in victories for Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data).
Two years after his last win in the Tour de France, the 28-year-old German rider is back on the podium with a very narrow win over pocket sprinter Bryan Cocquard (Direct Energie) and world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) on an uphill finish. The 237km stage from Saumur to Limoges was the ninth stage victory in the Tour de France for Kittel.
The difference between Kittel and Coquard was even closer than the difference between Cavendish and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) one day earlier in Angers, leaving only a few millimetres between the two riders. Kittel nor Coquard threw a fist in the air and both riders sank to the ground to await the verdict.
"I heard it from Steven, our physio, he was there with me," Kittel said. "They were saying something in the speakers. Suddenly Steven was saying: 'you won'. I gave him a big hug. It was a horrible moment to sit there and wait until you hear your name, or don’t hear it. It was very special and I'm very happy."
After learning that he won, Kittel was very emotional, not surprisingly after the rough year he had gone through in 2015. Afterwards he tried to explain where the emotions came from.
"I don’t know if you can explain emotions, they just come out," he said. "For me the victory means a lot because I know how hard it was until this moment came, after being sick so many times, missing out on the Tour and so many other race days during the year. For me, personally, it was a big setback in my career and a very difficult moment in my career. I actively tried to take action to make changes, to make improvement for myself for the future, to get back to the level to win great stages in the Tour, to be successful throughout the season.
"To see it now working so well – although the start of the Tour was not how we wanted it – is a huge relief. I live for my sport. I never did something else although the critics last year said something else. It shows today how much I love my sport and how much I love winning."
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The fifth of July in 2016 will clearly turn out to be a key moment in the career of Marcel Kittel.
"This is a very important day," he said. "Not only this year but also in my career. Important because I’m able to show at the highest level of cycling that I’m back, that I can win even it’s a 237km long stage with an uphill finish. The second thing which makes me actually even more proud is that the team that has so much pressure the last three days and expectations managed to turn around.
"We came here with the goal to win a stage of course. At the first stage we had our mind on taking the yellow jersey. It didn’t work, it was only second place. The day after Julian [Alaphilippe] only got second. It’s a good result but not what we wanted. To make it even worse we messed up the third day, the third chance to go for a victory. So we had a meeting yesterday. We talked in a very positive and good way about it. We tried to analyze the stage.
"I tried to give the confidence back to the boys because I know we have the power and great experience in the team. We don’t have to make mistakes like we did in the first stages. To see them riding like we never did anything else before. Today in the final they stayed really cool as ice. We came at the right moment to the front and were sticking there with me. I knew we had it in us. It makes me very proud."
After the failed lead-out at the end of yesterday’s stage from Granville to Angers there was a bit of a crisis in the Etixx-QuickStep camp. Team manager Patrick Lefevere stated that the team had done everything wrong and that Tuesday’s stage had to be better. After the victory in Limoges, Lefevere was a happy man.
“Finally," he said after Kittel's stage win. "Yesterday we had a good meeting. We put the finger on the wound and realized that Marcel is used to move to the front late, whereas we were spending too much energy before the real sprint. Today went perfectly, coming from second row. He started from far out, maybe too far but it’s important for his morale that he start in front. He wins and then it doesn’t matter how it happened.
"[...] Now we’re off. Tomorrow we’ll win again,” Lefevere said, laughingly.
That’ll surely be someone else than Kittel as there are five categorized climbs in the stage to mountain resort Le Lioran. It’ll be up to riders like Alaphilippe and Dan Martin to defend the team's colours.