SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Marcel Kittel’s only previous attempt at the Tour of California ended early, when a bout of knee inflammation forced the German sprinter to withdraw.
This year’s showing is already off to a much better start.
Kittel took advantage of a textbook lead-out from his Quick-Step Floors teammates to hold off Peter Sagan and Elia Viviani and win the opening stage in downtown Sacramento on Sunday.
Kittel spent the 104-mile stage that headed south of the city before circling back tucked safely in the peloton. And when the field brought back a four-man breakaway with about 15 miles to the finish, Kittel knew he would have a chance for his eighth win of the season.
“Some teams tried to go in the crosswinds, but nothing really happened as the wind was not strong it enough, so in the end it came down to a sprint, and I’m very happy how intelligent and strong my team worked in the end,” he said. “It’s promising for the next week.”
The breakaway of Ben Wolfe, Jonny Clarke, Floris Gerts and Charles Planet was reeled in as the peloton headed into a trio of 2.2-mile finishing circuits. The pace quickly picked up as the teams dedicated to the sprinters tried to position themselves as the front.
“They never really gave us much leash,” Wolfe said. “I think they gave us two minutes total, maybe two and a half. We just wanted to make it to the circuit so we could get some of the sprint points, and we were able to do that.”
Team Sky was the first to line up for Viviani, but the British team couldn’t hold the sharp end past the first lap. The American squad from Rally Cycling was next to move to the front, and the Katusha team also took a crack at positioning Alexander Kristoff for the sprint.
Ultimately, it was Quick-Step that made the decisive move on the final lap.
Five riders lined up in perfect position to drive the pace, and they kept peeling off as the field approached the finish. Fabio Sabatini eventually launched Kittel to the line, and he was so comfortable at the line that he nearly had time to pull up and celebrate.
“I think we got rid of a lot of pressure today, and we can look forward now to the next stages,” said Kittel, who is unlikely to retain the overall leader’s jersey when the second stage takes riders on a hilly, 90-mile ride from Modesto to San Jose.
“We are now in the situation where we take every day and what we can do as a team, because we have strong riders,” Kittel said. “For me, there is at least one more sprint I hope, maybe even more. But that depends on my condition and the race situation.”