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Australian's 2015 Tinkoff-Saxo team bike
Winner of the 2015 Tour Down Under
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Marcel Kittel (Project 1t4i) wins stage 2
German wins stage two of De Panne
Marcel Kittel (Project 1t4i) gave another exhibition of his talents by cruising to a dominant sprint victory on stage two of the Three Days of De Panne near Koksijde on Wednesday. On the long, flat finishing straight at Oostduinkerke, he unfurled a powerful sprint to distance new race leader Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and secure his fourth win of the season.
Kittel will have another opportunity to add that tally on morning stage to De Panne on Thursday, but he already has one eye on next week's Scheldeprijs. "That's the last big goal of this part of the spring for me and I want to be good in the Scheldeprijs," Kittel told reporters after his victory.
While Kittel admitted that he would relish the opportunity to go head to head with Mark Cavendish (Sky) at Scheldeprijs next Wednesday, the world champion is by no means certain to take the start of the Antwerp-based race as he awaits the birth of his daughter. When one Belgian journalist pointed out that Peta Todd will have the last word on whether or not the Cavendish-Kittel match does indeed go ahead, the German allowed himself a smile. "That's true but that's something where I have no influence," he said shyly.
As befits his status as a former time trial world champion, Kittel is not an explosive sprinter in the Cavendish mould, but instead prefers longer efforts. The final kilometre of Wednesday's stage proved to be the perfect amphitheatre for his abilities.
"When I saw the finish line for the first time I said to Bert De Backer ‘that's perfect for me.' It was 1,000 metres long, straight, wind on the back, high speed. That's something I really like."
By contrast, the finale to Thursday's morning stage is a sinuous one, but high on morale, Kittel is keen to test himself on a finishing straight seemingly less suited to his aptitudes.
"I saw the finish yesterday when we went to the hotel in De Panne. It's not easy because when you come into the city there a lot of corners but I think we will find a good solution," said Kittel, who will not be on the start on of the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix this year.
While Kittel has enjoyed an exuberant opening to the campaign out on the road, his season has not been without its difficulties. He hadn't even turned a pedal in anger in 2012, when an ARD television report linking him to a German blood doping investigation cast him unexpectedly into the spotlight in January.
The Project 1t4i team was quick to support Kittel, pointing out that he was not under investigation and that while he had received UV treatment from Dr. Andreas Franke at the Olympic Support Point in Erfurt in 2008, it was to treat an illness. The now outlawed practice was not illegal at the time, but Kittel admitted that the furore had affected him.
"It's something that's still in my head, I have to be honest," Kittel said quietly. "I'm trying to focus on cycling. I know I have the support of my team and my friends and my family. I did everything that was possible, I made a statement of what happened, why it happened, how it happened. I can't do anything more and now I just have to wait.
"It's something for me that was absolutely not nice and I hope that nobody else has to experience such a situation. I'm happy that it's quiet at the moment and I can focus on the races."
It remains to be seen if those races will include a debut Tour de France in July. The German's long-term ambition is to win on the Champs-Élysées, but his Project 1t4i squad is waiting to learn if it has done enough to secure a wildcard invitation to the Tour. "First of all we need an invitation. I hope we will get it," he said.
Before that, the Project 1t4i team will change its moniker, with the new title sponsor due to be unveiled on Friday night. Kittel batted away speculation that Argos Oil would bedeck his jersey from April 1. "There are a lot of rumours but if I'm honest I really don't know the sponsor," he insisted, before admitting that while the colours would change, the team would continue as before.
"It will change the jerseys and of course then we know the company who pays our contracts and supports our team, that's also something important," he joked. "But the team will be the same. We will try to work well together and do the same like we did always."