Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) moved into double figures for his tally of victories in 2016 in the best possible style on Sunday, clinching both the fourth Giro d'Italia stage win of his career and, simultaneously, the first maglia rosa of his career.
If stage 2 had already seen the German fastman take one bunch sprint with stunning superiority, on stage 3 Kittel's triumph over team Sky's Elia Viviani was even clearer. As a result, of the four mass-start stages the Etixx-QuickStep rider has taken part in the Giro d'Italia in 2014 and 2016, two in 2014 - before a DNS on stage 4 into Italy - and two in 2016, Kittel has been unbeaten in all of them. He has now, too, taken 10 wins in 2016.
The key difference with the 2014 Giro d'Italia, of course, is that this time round Kittel is also the race leader, too. "I won't be in pink in Turin, that's for sure," he said with a chuckle when asked if he would complete the race, "but so far this has gone perfectly."
"I wanted to start out strongly focused on the time trial and then get good results in the first two stages, and now I fly to Italy with the pink jersey in my suitcase. We will fight our way through the rest of the Giro to see what more we can achieve."
Kittel will turn 28 on Wednesday and he was asked if he thought he could keep the lead at least until then. Although Tuesday's 200 kilometre stage from Catanzaro to Praia di Mare is very lumpy, as former leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) has already pointed out, Kittel looks to be more than capable of handling such terrain in his current condition, and even stage 5’s fairly hilly 233 kilometre trek from Praia a Mare to Benavento do not contain any classified climbs. There is room, then, for optimism on his part.
"If it's possible I will do so but not at all costs," Kittel argued, after saying he had forgotten it would be his birthday on Wednesday. "For now I'm not going to sacrifice everything to do so, but it would be nice, for sure."
His path to the pink jersey was, he said, in any case is very different to how he had taken the Tour de France lead - in triumphant style in 2014 with a victory on the first stage into Harrogate, as was the case back in 2013, too, with a stage 1 win in Corsica.
"They [the Tour and the Giro] are totally different races, particular how riders can feel about racing in them , and the way I got the jersey here was not as direct as then. There was a bit of a deviation" - in other words, a time trial preceding the bunch sprints - "which also makes it very special."
Asked to describe, for the umpteenth time - "I must have told this a million times" he said with a slight tone of weariness in his voice - what had happened last year and the sickness that blighted his 2015 season, Kittel then went on to praise his new squad in 2016, Etixx QuickStep, and the support he received from the Belgian squad. This confidence in his abilities, he said, explained why he was back on track with such dramatic success in the bunch sprints, combined with an off-season in Girona where warmer winter weather for training and no illnesses enabled him to get off to a flying start and continue strongly into the first half of 2016.
"We've worked well as a team and also I am in really good shape, that's another reason for being so quick. If I compare this to Ireland [and the 2014 Giro d'Italia] it's different, and hard to judge now, because my memories form the Giro 2014 are both good and bad."
"I got sick in Ireland and couldn't start to race in Italy, and now I'm sitting here in pink and with two stage wins already. The way we've won the sprints here is the icing on the cake. It's a great way to round off this part of the Giro d'Italia and a unique one, too."
Looking further ahead, Kittel confirmed that the World Championships in the flatlands of Qatar would be another big objective for him.
"It's my goal for the end of the season and I want to go there as a sprinter with the German team," he said. "But I'm not going to start that discussion now about whether I'll be leader or not, because they are still half a year away and the selection will be made in the summer. The only thing I can do for now is provide good reasons why I should be included in the team."
So far in the Giro d’Italia 2016, Kittel is certainly doing that - and before the finish in Turin on May 29th, there's every chance he may provide several more.
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