Riding the Volta ao Algarve for the first time in his career, the German took stage 1 by the scruff of the neck and scored his fourth victory of the season.
Marcel Kittel is in scintillating form, and he proved this once again, by winning the inaugural stage (Lagos – Albufeira, 163.6 km) of the 42nd Volta ao Algarve, a race for which Etixx – Quick-Step assembled a very strong team, that also includes Tom Boonen, Yves Lampaert, Tony Martin, Fabio Sabatini, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra and Julien Vermote.
Only three men went into the breakaway on Wednesday – Domingos Gonçalves (Caja Rural), Kamil Gradek (Verva-ActiveJet) and Alexandr Kolobnev (Gazprom-Rusvelo) – but they managed to open a big gap of almost seven minutes, which meant the sprinters' teams had to pull hard in order to catch them. As a result, Etixx – Quick-Step and Lotto-Soudal shared duties at the front and brought the escapees back inside the last ten kilometers.
In a crash-marred finale, two of the team's riders hit the ground – Yves Lampaert, with 8 kilometers to go, and Fabio Sabatini, in the last roundabout – but fortunately both climbed back on the bike and completed the stage. In the first incident, also Tom Boonen was involved, while he was moving up to the front of the peloton following a flat tire. The 2005 world champion avoided the crash, but broke his front wheel and had to wait for a new bike, and after getting it, he arrived at the finish together with Lampaert.
Despite these setbacks, Etixx – Quick-Step kept its composure on the tricky last part of the course, which included an undulating terrain, and delivered Marcel Kittel in an excellent position, allowing the German to launch his powerful sprint and record his fourth win of the season, ahead of fellow countryman André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). The victory he scored in Albufeira came one year after another Etixx – Quick-Step rider, Gianni Meersman, won in the same city and donned the yellow jersey.
"It wasn't an easy day, and we were aware of that, but we took it as a challenge, because we wanted to prove that we can win also on such a finish. We stayed calm, came at the front before the last roundabout, and it all worked well in the end", said the 27-year-old, who's leading a race for the second time this season, following the Dubai Tour, which he won at the beginning of the month.
The German, who will wear the yellow jersey on Thursday, continued: "It's a good start for us here in Portugal. As a matter of fact, the overall picture makes us happy and proud, because we have enjoyed an excellent start to the season, and I am very grateful for that. My goal in Algarve was to take a stage and I did it against a quality field, which is very important for my confidence. Now, the team will be more relaxed, will take things day by day and we'll see if we will get another shot at a win".
Volta ao Algarve will continue with stage 2, that's going to include four categorized climbs, including the Alto da Foia (first category), which features at the finish. The 7.5 km-long ascent, averaging 5.8%, was first used in the races 14 years ago, and now returns on the course for the queen-stage that could lead to some big gaps in the general classification.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele