Marcel Kittel’s bronze medal in the time trial at last year’s Under 23 world championships has marked him out as a big talent against the watch, but he showed he is also a very strong sprinter by racing to victory on today’s third stage of the Tour de Langkawi.
The tall 22 year old German rider powered into Sitiawan ahead of Malaysian favourite Anuar Manan (Terengganu ProAsia Cycling), with double stage victor Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini – Neri Sottoli) having to be satisfied with third place.
Kittel was delighted with what he achieved. “The first thing I have to say is a big thank you to my team. The lead out worked really well. I got the best position I could have for sprinting,” he stated.
Coming into the race, his Skil-Shimano team was regarded as being likely to be led in the sprints by Kenny Van Hummel. However Kittel explained that there is dual leadership in place when it comes to the flat stages, with each rider being set to earn a chance.
“When I look at our team here, I see two good climbers and two good sprinters,” he said. “For sprinting, we have Kenny van Hummel and myself. Today Kenny said he preferred to help me out, so I had the privilege to go into the sprint with him and Koen de Kort in front of me. We don’t want to focus on only one person at Skil-Shimano. The whole team is really strong.”
Guardini was unable to keep his winning streak up, but he still had plenty of reason to celebrate. He retained both the yellow jersey of race leader and the blue jersey of best sprinter, and earned more time on the podium and more publicity for his sponsor.
“We wanted to keep this yellow jersey and this blue jersey and we managed to do it. I tried to win the sprint today, the team did everything for a bunch sprint finish but third is a good result as well,” he said, not getting too hung up on the fact that he didn’t cross the line first.
He knows that tomorrow’s mountain stage to Cameron Highlands will definitely bring his time in the yellow jersey to a close. He’s a sprinter, not a climber, and confirmed that he has no expectations of being on top of the leaderboard. “Tomorrow it will be impossible to keep the yellow jersey. It will be too hard. But I’ll fight hard in the bonus sprints and I will try to make the time cut,” he said, confirming that his goal now is to keep the blue points jersey until the end of the race in Kuala Lumpur. Manan is battling well, though, and now has the same points total as his rival.
Today’s 144.9 kilometre stage began in Taiping and quickly put pressure on the peloton. The fourth category climb of Bukit Gantang topped out just 17.3 kilometres after the drop of the flag and with a big crash taking place before the start of the slopes, several riders were left peeling themselves off the ground.
King of the mountains leader Koen de Kort was determined to try to keep the red jersey and his Skil-Shimano team set a fast place on the climb. However an error was made, as he explained afterwards, and he wasn’t in the top three as a result.
“We were trying to retain this jersey. I like this jersey and I would like to keep it as long as possible. The tactic was for the team to lead on the climb and then lead out on the sprint, as I was told that the climb wasn’t too hard,” he said. “That is what we did, but it sort of went wrong…I got onto the front too early and they passed with me with such speed that I couldn’t get back onto the wheel any more. It was just a mistake from my end and it won’t happen again.”
The miscalculation saw de Kort finish outside the first three, with points going instead to Jonnatha Monsalve (Androni Giocattoi), Mehdi Sohrabi (Tabriz Petrochemical Team) and Puchong Sai-Udomsin (Terengganu ProAsia Cycling). Sohrabi’s gain was enough to move him level on points, and with various other factors being equal, the jersey would be determined by where they finished on the stage itself.
Soon afterwards, David Pell (Drapac Professional Cycling) and Zainal Mohd Nur Rizuan (Malaysian National Team) broke away. They were hauled back several kilometres later and at Kuala Kangsar (km 32.7), Manan beat Guardini to take the first bonus sprint.
Fifty kilometres into the stage, Loh Sea Keong (Malaysian National Team) and Rhys Pollock (Drapac Professional Cycling) broke away and established a lead of over four minutes. Loh beat his breakaway companion to take the bonus sprint at Beruas (km 77), while behind Guardini got the edge on Manan.
The next intermediate sprint at Pantai Remis (km 100.6) also went to Loh; Guardini’s team-mates Roberto De Patre and Otavio Bulgarelli mopped up the points for third and fourth, thus ensuring that their leader didn’t have to sprint.
They and their team-mates kept the effort going afterwards in order to chase down the duo up ahead. The ramping up of the speed had the desired effect, and things came back together with five kilometres to go. A big crash spelt an end to the sprint hopes of some riders, but Kittel, Manan and Guardini avoided the chaos, scrapped it out inside the final 300 metres and crossed the line in that order.
Kittel was psyched after the finish, realising that the victory showed that he is a more complete rider than was previously thought by some. “I’m known as a time triallist, especially since I got the bronze medal at the U23 world championship last year,” he said. “But I want to show during my first year as a pro that I can also be fast in the sprints. Today is a good start.”
He and the other sprinters will take a back seat for tomorrow’s finish, as the race begins the first of two days in the mountains. The 137.6 kilometre race from Ayer Tawar to the Cameron Highlands will have a major effect on the race and the general classification will be seriously shaken up.