All of the sprinters have been under pressure to perform in the first stages of this Tour de France, but perhaps no team has had a more out-spoken manager picking apart their performances to the press than Etixx-Quickstep. What they and Marcel Kittel accomplished in winning stage 4 to Limoges was nothing short of a miracle.
In 2013, Kittel claimed the opening Tour de France stage in Porto Vecchio and finished the race with four stage wins and the prestigious victory on the Champs-Elysees in his pocket. He repeated that feat in 2014, winning in Harrogate and again bookending the Tour with a fourth stage victory in Paris, but things went downhill with his previous Giant-Alpecin team in 2015 and he did not start a single Grand Tour last year.
It's no wonder that Kittel was under so much stress to get a stage win in this Tour de France for his new manager Patrick Lefevere, and if falling short of Mark Cavendish on stage 1 was heartbreak, then the hot mess that was the Etixx-Quickstep lead-out on stage 3 was a clear sign that the team needed more cohesion, better communication and a lot more luck in the sprints.
Most of the pundits had written Kittel off in the uphill rise to the line on stage 4 to Limoges, but the German found something special. After being escorted through a lazy 237.5km stage, where Julian Vermote helped control the breakaway for much of the day, the team once again came apart on a tricky squeeze into a roundabout. Amid the chaos where several lead-out trains came unglued, Etixx-Quickstep magically found each other for the final kilometer and brought Kittel back into position.
Once launched, Kittel surged clear and had a straight line of sight at the finish, but might have noticed a black and yellow hornet buzzing up on his left side - the figure of Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) flailing his way through and violently throwing his bike to the line. One tense minute for the jury to review the photo finish and Kittel could finally breathe - victory was his and the monkey was off his back.
Laura Weislo: We may never know the whole story of Kittel's disastrous 2015 season, but it is heartening to see a rider come back after a bad year and return to his best. Much like Mark Cavendish, whose Tour de France star began to wane after the demise of HTC-Highroad, but is now back in fighting form and equal on Bernard Hinault in career stage wins.
It is immensely difficult to shrug off one's failures, and there is no doubt that Kittel's emotional victory will give him the space to relax, let go of the stress and be able to focus better. This win was close, but it is unlikely that Kittel will let it come down to a photo finish again.