When a local journalist asked Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) on Tuesday if he was hopeful of keeping his yellow jersey all the way to the end of the Tour de Pologne in Krakow, he gave a wry smile before explaining that it was never an option given the mountains that await on stages 5 and 6.
What was in doubt, however, was whether the German would be able to hang onto it – and whether he’d be able to sprint for victory – in Nowy Sacz on stage 4. The finely balanced parcours contained three categorised climbs but then a flat 30-kilometre drag to the line, offering hope to sprinters and baroudeurs in equal measure.
In the end, the three escapees shaded it by 20 seconds over the baying peloton but Kittel was nowhere to be seen in that bunch. He was dropped on the final climb and after a futile attempt to chase back on he eased up and relinquished yellow. The 27-year-old, who seemed to have jumpstarted his season with an opening day win, always knew the odds were against him but still was took heart from the way he was able to climb and chase.
“It was harder than we expected to be honest. First of all there was no team that really wanted to try to go for a sprint, then the gap was getting bigger and bigger and in the end also the altitude metres were more than they mentioned in the roadbook,” Kittel told reporters in the mixed zone.
“After all, I can say that this was more than I am able to do in normal shape. I had pretty good legs today and the team tried to support me as well as possible. It was close – I almost made it back into the bunch after the last climb but it was not enough. Still, it was a good day, we still have the points jersey, Luka Mezgec was second from the bunch, so it was not bad at all.”
Kittel swapped the yellow jersey for a red and white one, which signifies his lead in the points classification and despite his race being over in terms of sprint opportunities, he is motivated by the prospect of winning that jersey outright. His nearest rivals in the standings are those who have been at the front in the sprints but if someone takes a couple of podium places in the mountains and puts in a decent shift in the final day time trial it could well be under threat.
“I really would like to defend it, definitely,” Kittel said. "It’s going to be very difficult to get points on the next two days, maybe it will even come down to doing a good time trial, I don’t know. For now I’m happy I have it and I will have to see how it looks in the points classification.”