After a frustrating start to life in the red and white of Katusha-Alpecin, Kittel was convinced that his fortunes had turned in the most dramatic fashion thanks to a breathless comeback in the closing metres at Al Marina.
Four sprinters dived for the line simultaneously, and though picking a winner on first glance was an impossibility, Kittel's instincts told him that he had won the day. He punched the air accordingly as he wheeled to a halt, though he must have noticed that Phil Bauhaus was accepting high fives from his Sunweb teammates a little further back the road. One of them could not be wrong.
Word soon reached Kittel that the commissaires would need to review the photo finish before declaring a winner, though the mood among his Katusha-Alpecin teammates remained buoyant. Soon afterwards, however, a doleful shake of the head from his soigneur signalled the final decision: Kittel had been edged into second place by his fellow German Bauhaus.
On the same finish a year ago, Kittel had slipped past an already celebrating Caleb Ewan to claim the stage. "Now I know how he felt," Kittel said to his teammates as he smiled in disbelief. "I really thought I had it. I want to see the photo."
Before Kittel could review the footage, he was waylaid by the waiting troupe of reporters, and he stressed that there were positives to be drawn even from this disappointment. After failing to make any impact in the bunch finishes on the opening two days of the Abu Dhabi Tour, his sprint here was, by some distance, his best in Katusha colours.
"It's very disappointing but today was the first day where I felt normal again," Kittel said. "The last two days I struggled a bit with myself – I don't know why, maybe the heat – but I'm very optimistic and this was the first very good opportunity for us where we could smell the victory."
The Feng Shui of this particular bunch sprint – "hectic and chaotic" – was not in keeping with Kittel's usual tastes, but he rearranged the furniture to fine effect by switching to the left-hand side of the road in the final 50 metres and then powering off the shoulder of overall leader Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors). It was a stunning comeback, but though Kittel overhauled Viviani and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), he ran out of road before he could pip Bauhaus.
"I knew that there was a little headwind and I had to find the gap somehow through the bunch, and I managed to do that," Kittel said, and then smiled wanly: "Just 1,000th of a second too late, apparently."
Building a train
When Kittel signed for Quick-Step two years ago, he linked up with a largely prefabricated sprint train and began winning instantly. The expectation was that he would do likewise on joining Katusha-Alpecin, but in Dubai and again on the first two days in Abu Dhabi, they seemed beset by a marked lack of cohesion. Those early travails have only been highlighted by Viviani's seamless assumption of Kittel's old sprint role at Quick-Step, and the fact that just about all of the other big beasts of the sprinting world have already opened their accounts for 2018. His next opportunity to notch up a sprint win will come at Paris-Nice next month.
"When I look at my watch, it's still February and we still have seven months of the season to go, seventy race days still to go. There are a lot of chances still to go for victories," said Kittel, who acknowledges that lofty expectations are de rigueur for a sprinter with his weighty palmarès.
"It always sounds easy – there's a very good sprinter like Kittel and a very good lead-out train from Katusha-Alpecin and now they just have to ride together and they're going to win a million races this year. But that's not how it works. We have to find a way to work together, and since we started in Dubai we've been getting better every day. You don't always see the result, but we are doing small steps. I think today we are at the point where we can say there's progress, and we can be proud of that."
Lore says that sprinters can always sense whether or not they have won a tight sprint. Kittel's celebrations seemed to disprove that theory, but he admitted that he was quietly satisfied to have at least produced what felt to him – and initially looked – like a winning sprint. The real thing cannot be too far away.
"I think that's a successful small step. I was just too late and that's unfortunate," Kittel said. "But we will still have a beer tonight."
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