The most frustrating thing for Marcel Kittel was that he had already done the hardest part. The German had survived the early echelons and his Katusha-Alpecin team was in command of the race when a puncture on the final lap of the finishing circuit in Schoten dashed his hopes of winning Scheldeprijs for a sixth time.
Kittel rolled across the line more than three minutes down in 53rd place, and might briefly have been confused as to where to turn next on Churchillaan. It was understandable: he is used to flashing by that point at full speed before being propelled by a wave of handshakes and high fives to the podium by the finish line.
On this occasion, and for the first time since 2011, Kittel turned his bike slowly and had only his frustration for company as he made the long trek back down the finishing straight to where his team bus was parked. The bouquet and the cheers were instead for the Quick-Step Floors youngster Fabio Jakobsen, winner of the sprint ahead of Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Christopher Lawless (Team Sky).
"It's disappointing. Very disappointing," Kittel admitted when he emerged from the bus a little later. "As a team we did a really good job, we were with seven guys in the first group of 30 guys when the race really got hard after 100 kilometres. Tony [Martin] got a puncture so that was unlucky. I also kept getting punctures and that was even more unlucky.
"But what can you do about it? It is what it is, and I think we have to take the positive energy out of the fact that we were there and that we dominated the race. It was very clear. In the final in the last three laps we controlled the race, we got the attacks back, and that's the way we have to do it."
A puncture too many
When Kittel reported for duty in the new start town of Terneuzen on Wednesday morning, a biting breeze was sweeping in off the grey North Sea, as if to remind him that this would be a Scheldeprijs like no other. The German was the pre-race favourite, but only on the proviso that he could survive the early trek along the exposed flatlands of Zeeland.
Kittel did that and more. Not even a puncture after 20 kilometres could prevent him from making the front group when the race splintered into echelons in the opening hour. His task seemed to have been facilitated still further when his main sprint rivals, Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), were excluded from the race with 33 others – including Tony Martin – for passing through a level crossing as the barriers were lowering.
By the time the race crossed from the Netherlands into Belgium, Scheldeprijs looked destined to return to a familiar script, and not even another puncture with 45 kilometres appeared to discommode Kittel, who calmly took a replacement wheel and glided back into the peloton.
The third and final puncture was rather more untimely, arriving with 12 kilometres to go as rain fell steadily over Schoten and the speed ratcheted upwards in the near 50-strong leading group. Kittel gave chase with teammate Nils Politt and came to within touching distance of the bunch, but finally had to give in on the approach to the final cobbled section at Broekstraat, shaking his head in resignation as the gap opened once again.
"I tried but the first puncture I got was already at a moment where it cost a lot of energy, after about 20 kilometres. We were constantly going at 65-70kph just to make it back to the group at that point," Kittel said, running through the doleful litany of punctures.
"The second time was quite OK, but after a hard day already and bad weather, to come back for a third time in the final is really, really hard. I was close but there is a point where you are empty and I reached that point there."
Kittel will line out Paris-Roubaix on Sunday before taking a break ahead of the Tour of California, but he will approach his first Hell of the North appearance since 2011 utterly unfettered by pressure. "For myself, my own expectations are not super high," said Kittel, whose thoughts still seemed bound in the events of Wednesday afternoon.
There is a perhaps apocryphal tale told of Jacques Anquetil's final months as a professional, when he dismissed the idea of continuing to the end of the season by saying, "What use would it be to me to win a tenth Grand Prix des Nations?"
Kittel's disappointment in Schoten on Wednesday afternoon, not to mention his apparent mastery of the new parcours, suggests that he will be back looking to extend his record at Scheldeprijs.
"The team is very strong so that should give everybody confidence," Kittel said. "I saw a lot of disappointed faces on the team bus just now, and I think that's a good sign."