Marcel Kittel was in pain after fighting to the finish of stage 3 of the Dubai Tour to Hatta Dam. After crossing the finish line in sixth place, keeping alive his chances of overall victory, he slumped to the ground, exhausted, and then jumped up and leant over a barrier, taking big gulps of air.
The German sprinter had managed to haul his 82kg of sprinting muscle up the 17% final climb, just four seconds down on stage winner Juan Jose Lobato (Movistar) and two seconds behind Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo).
After recovering from his effort, Kittel looked for his new Etixx-Quickstep teammates in the chaos past the finish line. Some riders were still finishing, while others were trying to ride back down the climb to their team vehicles. Kittel celebrated his successful day with Matteo Trentin, who finished 10th and helped Kittel stay near the front of the peloton before the ramp to the finish. A little later Julian Vermote arrived and the three congratulated each on an excellent performance.
Kittel was hopeful but unsure if he had managed to take the leader’s blue jersey.
“I knew I could do it,” he told his teammates, talking about staying within reach of an overall victory, rather than the stage victory.
“Viviani was dropped; you could have the jersey,” Vermote said.
“But where did Nizzolo finish?” Kittel asked.
When he was told that the Italian had finished second, Kittel’s heart sunk and his smile disappeared. He knew the Trek-Segafredo rider was probably in blue depending on the final time gaps. He was right. Luca Papini of race organiser RCS Sport confirmed that Nizzolo was in the leader’s jersey.
Nizzolo gained two seconds on Kittel and picked up a six-second time bonus. That put him in the blue leader’s jersey with Lobato at two seconds and Kittel third overall at six seconds.
With everyone else further back - overnight leader Elia Viviani now at 34 seconds and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) losing five minutes due to a late puncture - the fight for overall victory in this year’s Dubai Tour is now between Nizzolo, Lobato and Kittel.
“Our focus was on the finish, to make it into the front for the uphill sprint. Things went really well, we worked as a team, and I'm quite happy with my result,” Kittel said.
The two intermediate sprints during Saturday’s 137km fourth and final stage offer 3, 2 and 1 seconds each and, more importantly, there are 10, 6 and 4 seconds up for grabs at the finish. Kittel needs to pull back at least six seconds on Nizzolo but must be the favourite to win after the impressive performance by him and the Etixx-QuickStep team on stage 1. He can only hope that Nizzolo finishes third or lower. Even stage placings could be vital if they tie on time.
“This finish was more important for me than yesterday’s finish,” Kittel told Cyclingnews before heading back down the climb, fully understanding his achievement.
He was bullish about stage four after such a strong performance on the climb to Hatta Dam.
“I didn’t get the jersey but everything is still possible tomorrow (Saturday). It’s going to be a fast sprint, so we’ll go full gas and see what happens,” he said.