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Having latched onto Kristoff’s wheel before the final turn, Kittel easily came around the Norwegian to win the bunch sprint in the morning stage of the 3 Days of De Panne; Kristoff extended his advantage ahead of the time trial

Photo: ANSA - PERI / Dal Zennaro

ALEXANDER KRISTOFF

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DECEUNINCK - QUICK-STEP

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DRIEDAAGSE DE PANNE

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KATUSHA ALPECIN

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MARCEL KITTEL

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PHIL BAUHAUS

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31.03.2016 @ 12:30 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

One day after his frustrating defeat on stage 2, Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) proved that he is still the fastest rider in the world by taking a dominant sprint win on the morning stage of the final day at the 3 Days of De Panne. Having latched onto Alexander Kristoff’s (Katusha) wheel just before the late turn 300m from the line, he easily came around the Norwegian to take a clear victory before Phil Bauhaus (Bora-Argon 18) also passed the Norwegian who had to settle for third. With the 2 bonus seconds, Kristoff extended his lead over Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) to 7 seconds.

 

Yesterday Marcel Kittel had the rare experience of being beaten in a head-to-head battle by one of his fellow sprinters when Elia Viviani (Sky) came around him just metres from the line to relegate the big German to second place. He openly admitted that he was hugely disappointed and tried to focus on the positives of the great lead-out that had put him in the perfect position for the sprint.

 

Kittel knew that he had one chance to find back to his winning ways before Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs which is the first big goal of his season. The morning stage on the final day of the Belgian race always comes down to a bunch sprint and this was Kittel’s chance to get his revenge.

 

This time Kittel made no mistakes and even though his team failed to deliver him on the front as they did yesterday, the German got what he was looking for: an important victory less than a week before the sprint classic. Starting his sprint from Alexander Kristoff’s wheel, he easily came around the Norwegian to take his first win since February.

 

Everything was set for the expected bunch sprint when the break was brought back with 6.1km to go due to the huge work done by Etixx-QuickStep and Katusha. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Alexander Porsev were in control and set the pace while their sprint trains had gathered just behind.

 

Kenneth Vanbilsen (Cofidis) launched an immediate counterattack and while Van Keirsbulck and Porsev continued to rider on the front. He slowly managed to open an advantage of 10 seconds with 3.5km to go. As it was a bit of a waiting game for the sprint teams, he had even increased it to 12 seconds just 500m later but it was always going to be mission impossible.

 

With 3km to go, Katusha took complete control with Porsev and when Nils Politt took over, Vanbilsen was back in the fold as they entered the final 2km. The young German led his teammates Marco Haller, Michael Mørkøv, Jacopo Guarnieri and Alexander Kristoff while Etixx-QuickStep were looming just behind.

 

Lukasz Wisniowski tried to launch the Etixx train but had lost his teammates in the hectic finale and so quickly disappeared from the front. Instead, it was Tony Martin who tried to bring the Belgian team to the front and it was a big sprint between the German and Haller.

 

Martin won the battle and so dropped Maximilano Richeze, Fabio Sabatini and Kittel off in the perfect position, with many sprinters fighting hard to get onto the German’s wheel. Under the flamme rouge, it was Richeze doing the lead-out but he lost the battle when Katusha moved up and it was Mørkøv, Guarnieri and Kristoff who hit the front as they approached the crucial turn 300m from the line.

 

Sabatini did a great job to drop Kittel off on Kristoff’s wheel and so he was in third position when Guarnieri led the Norwegian sprinter through the turn. Hence, the big favourites were ahead when a crash took out several contenders, including André Greipel (Lotto Soudal).

 

Guarnieri gave Kristoff the perfect lead-out and it came down to a head-to-head battle between the Norwegian and Kittel but this time the outcome was never in doubt. Kittel was clearly the fastest and rode to a comfortable win while Phil Bauhaus (Bora-Argon 18) who had won the battle for Kittel’s wheel, also came around Kristoff who had to settle for third.

 

Hence, there were only two bonus seconds left for Kristoff who extended his advantage over Alexey Lutsenko and Lieuwe Westra (Astana) to 7 and 12 seconds respectively. It will now all be decided in the final 14.2km time trial in De Panne. As usual, it’s a dead-flat course but lots of turns will make it a technical affair.

 

A short, flat stage

After yesterday’s long sprint stage, the riders were back in the saddle for the traditional morning stage which brought the riders over 111.5km around the city of De Panne. It was a completely flat affair and included a big circuit in the exposed terrain close to the coast before the riders returned to the finish for one lap of a 8.3km finishing circuit that included a late turn just 300m from the finish and a cobbled finishing straight.

 

As is always the case, many of Flanders favorites did not turn up for the morning stage on the last stage. Viacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha), Lars Boom (Astana), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEdge), Ian Stannard (Team Sky) and Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Topsport Vlaanderen) were all absent when the riders gathered for an early start at 9.15 in the morning.

 

Six riders get clear

The rest of the riders headed out for their neutral ride under a cloudy, dry sky and many were pleased to realize that there was barely ay wind. They were also pleased to get the stage off to a slow start and they allowed to let a break go almost immediately from the start where Lars Bak (Lotto Soudal), Hugo Hofstetter (Cofidis), Alexandre Pichot (Direct Energie), Ivar Slik (Roompot Oranje), Giuseppe Fonzi (South East), Stijn Steels (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Igor Boev (Gazprom-RusVelo) attacked.

 

However, they had to fight a bit to get a bigger advantage and only had 42 seconds after 5 kilometres of racing. The pace was too fast for Slik who fell back to the peloton.

 

Katusha and Etixx-QuickStep in control

Katusha and Etixx-QuickStep quickly took charge for the chase with Alexander Porsev, Sergey Lagutin, Iljo Keisse and Davide Martinelli, and they held the gap at around 45-50 seconds. It even briefly dropped to 37 seconds, but had grown to 1.18 after around 20km of racing. For a while, they kept it around a minute and then stepped slightly off the gas to allow it to grow a bit on what was a very calm first part of the stage.

 

Keisse, Martinelli, Lagutin and Porsev worked well together on what was a less stressful morning stage than usual and they kept the gap at around 1.25 until they entered the final 45km. That point was the signal to up the pace and they slowly started to reduce the gap. Five kilometres later, it had already dropped to a minute.

 

Astana come to the fore

The gap was down to 40 seconds before the escapees managed to respond to the faster pace, pushing the gap back out to 1.10 with 33km to go. Meanwhile, the sprinters started to take off their warm clothes to get ready for the expected sprint.

 

The chase effort got some momentum when Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) started to contribute to the pace-setting with 30km to go, and this had an effect. The gap had dropped to 50 seconds when they entered the final 25km where the sprint trains started to organize themselves near the front.

 

De Vries goes down

The gap stabilized around 40 seconds and when Fuglsang and Martinelli blew up with 20km to go, the escapees briefly had the upper hand. However, as Bak started to skip turns in the break and Keisse, Porsev and Lagutin emptied themselves, the balance tipped and the gap was down to 25 seconds with 15km to go.

 

GC rider Berden De Vries (Roompot) hit the deck but was quickly back on his bike. Meanwhile, Hofstetter led Steels and Pichot across the line in the intermediate sprint which the escapees didn’t contest.

 

The break is caught

With 10km to go, the gap was down to just 10 seconds and it was still Keisse, Porsev and Lagutin riding on the front while the sprint teams gathered behind. The Belgian led the peloton across the line to start their lap of the 8.3km finishing circuit.

 

Laurens De Vreese (Astana) and Kristian House (ONE) hit the deck while the escapees desperately tried to hang onto an advantage of just a few metres. Bak was the first to surrender and as Van Keirsbulck took over from Keisse and Lagutin, it was all back together with 6.1km to go, setting the scene for another Kittel win.

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