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Having survived the fast pace set by Movistar on the climbs, Kittel took a surprise victory in the reduced bunch sprint on the first stage of the Tour de Romandie, narrowly holding Bonifazio off; Izagirre retaine the lead

Photo: Etixx - Quick-Step / Tim de Waele

ION IZAGIRRE

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MARCEL KITTEL

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MICHAEL ALBASINI

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MOVISTAR TEAM

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NICCOLÓ BONIFAZIO

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SOUDAL - QUICK STEP

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TOUR DE ROMANDIE

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27.04.2016 @ 17:55 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) warned his rivals that he will be very hard to beat in the sprints at the Giro d’Italia when he took a surprise victory in the hilly first stage of the Tour de Romandie. The German showed great form by surviving the fast pace set by Movistar on the climbs and then narrowly held Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek) off in the reduced bunch sprint, with Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) completing the podium. Ion Izagirre (Movistar) finished safely in the bunch and retained the overall lead.

 

The Tour de Romandie is known as a race for climbers and there are rarely any chances for the pure sprinters who mostly stay away from the Swiss race. However, Marcel Kittel has bucked the trend in 2016 and this week he is lining up in the Swiss mountains in an attempt to improve his form for the Giro d’Italia.

 

Kittel didn’t have too many expectations for the race, knowing that it would be hard to get a single chance to sprint and he mainly hoped to work on his climbing ahead of his first grand tour since the 2014 Tour de France. Today, however, he showed his Giro rivals that they have to be on their toes if they want to beat the most successful rider of the season in the bunch kicks next months as he showed excellent condition by winning the hilly first stage of the Swiss race.

 

Kittel was definitely helped by the fact that bad weather forced the organizers to shorten the race by skipping the first 68.5km that included the hardest climb of the race. However, he still had to overcome three category 3 climb and the fast pace set by Movistar to make it to the finish and contest the sprint finish. While riders like Ben Swift and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) were left behind, the German dug deep to make the selection and finally he benefited from a great lead-out to beat Niccolo Bonifazio in a close sprint.

 

It had been a relatively easy start to the race as Sander Armee (Lotto Soudal) was alone in the lead, chased by Nico Brüngger (Roth) and Marco Minnaard (Wanty). Movistar had set the pace and it wasn’t until the riders hit the 41.7km finishing circuit with the final climb, that the race really came to life.

 

As the peloton headed to the finish line, the fight for position started and all the big teams were lined out on the front as they started to climb the final ascent 4 minutes behind the lone leader. Here Jack Haig immediately hit the front for Orica-GreenEDGE and Christian Meier soon came to the fore to lend him a hand.

 

The Australian team went full gas and had reduced the gap to 3.15 when they approached the official start of the climb. As it kicked off with a steep cobbled section, there was a big fight for position and it was Andrey Amador who led the peloton up the toughest part before Haig and Meier again took over.

 

The chasers were brought back with 30km to go and Haig and Meier continued to set the pace until Movistar dropped the hammer as they hit the steepest section near the front. Amador took a big turn before Winner Anacona, the Costa Rican and Nairo Quinatan led the group over the top 2.00 behind Armee.

 

Movistar continued to ride hard in the next lumpy section and that made the peloton explode. Michal Kwiakowski, Ben Swift, Thomas De Gendt, Peter Velits, Fabio Sabatini and Vicente Reynes were among the many riders to get dropped.

 

Amador and Anacona continued to set the pace and had reduced the gap to 1.20 as they entered the final 20km. At this point, less than 100 riders had survived and it was a big fight for position to be near the front for the descent.

 

Jose Joaquin Rojas took over for Movistar before the Spanish team disappeared and several teams lined out their troops on the front with 15km to. Armee was now just 15 seconds ahead but he dug deep to stay ahead until the final intermediate sprint which he won ahead of Robert Kiserlovski and Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff). Moments later he was brought back with just 13km to go.

 

Rojas was back on the front for Movistar and led the group into the final 10km before Amador again took over. The pair held off a surge from Lampre-Merida and led the group down the descent.

 

Rojas, Amador, Izagirre and Quintana led the peloton past the 5km to go mark before Rojas swung off. Amador was forced to react when Jan Bakelants (Ag2r) attacked but as the Belgian quickly got an advantage, Orica-GreenEDGE had to kick into action.

 

Damien Howson and Christian Meier hit the front and managed to bring the Ag2r rider back as they passed the 3km to go mark. Jan Polanc (Lampre-Merida) lent them a hand while the sprinters started to prepare themselves.

 

Matteo Bono took a turn for Lampre-Merida when Etixx-QuickStep launched their train. Maxime Bouet, Davide Martinelli, Bob Jungels, Lukasz Wisniowski and Kittel hit the front and the big German was in a great position as they passed the flamme rouge.

 

Bouet and Martinelli finished their job but as Jungels took over, the Etixx-QuickStep riders were surprised by Michael Albasini who hit out already 300m from the line. The Swiss quickly got a big advantage and after Wisniowski had done the lead-out, Kittel had to launch his sprint from afar. He easily passed Albasini but got a scare when Niccolo Bonifazio tried to pass him on the left. The Italian almost managed to take the win but ran out of metres and so Kittel could celebrate his first ever win in the Swiss race.

 

Ion Izagirre finished safely in the bunch and so he retained his 6-second advantage over Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin). He faces his first big test in tomorrow’s second stage which has the first summit finish. Most of the stage is flat with just a category 2 climb at the midpoint but it all comes to a dramatic conclusion. A category 2 climb is followed by a small descent before the riders hit the bottom of the final climb which averages 7.1% over 7.3km. The top comes with 2km to go and then it is slightly uphill in the final part, meaning that the scene is set for the first big battle between the climbers.

 

A shortened stage

After the wet prologue, the riders were originally set to tackle a 169km stage from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Moudon. The course had an early category 2 climb and then descended to a lumpy section with two category 3 climbs. In the end, there was a 41.7km circuit on the menu and it included a 5.3km category 3 climb with an average gradient of 4%. The top was located 28.8km from the finish and from there it was a lumpy section and a descent that led to the flat finish.

 

Unfortunately, snow prevented the riders from tackling the descent from the category 2 climb and so the organizers decided to shorten the stage. Hence, the riders took the start at the 68.5km mark and only covered the final 100.5km which included the three category 3 climbs.

 

Armee takes off

Victor Campenaerts (LottoNL-Jumbo) who crashed in the prologue, was the only non-starter when the peloton took a delayed start at 14.50 in nice, sunny conditions. Sander Armee (Lotto Soudal) attacked immediately and while Chris Froome (Sky) briefly had to stop and chase behind the peloton, the Belgian got an advantage of 30 seconds. After just 8 km, it had already grown to a minute.

 

Nico Brüngger (Roth) and Marco Minnaard (Wanty) realized that they had missed the break and therefore they attacked just one kilometrer later. After 14km of racing, they were, however, still 1.14 behind Armee while the peloton had already lost 2.40.

 

Movistar take control

Armee did not wait for his chasers and sowas 1.37 ahead of the duo and 3.37 ahead of the peloton when he hit the day's first climb. In the field it was Movistar that took responsibility and kept the gap at around four minutes.

 

At the top of the climb, Armee had a gap of 2.05 to the chasers and 4.05 to the peloton, and of course he won the KOM sprint, with Brüngger beating Minnaard in the battle for second. Antonio Pedrero (Movistar) was the first rider from the peloton.

 

Armee presses on

While it started to hail, the balance slowly tipped, and so Armee was only 1.35 ahead of the two chasers at the 33km mark. However, the progress stalled and at the end of the first hour where they had covered 42.1km, the gaps were still 1.50 and 4.00 respectively.

 

Armee was of course the first rider at the top of the second climb while Brüngger again beat Minnaard in the battle for second. Pedrero again led the peloton to the top around 4 minutes behind the leader.

 

Armee pressed on in the sunny conditions and the gaps were completely stable as he headed to the first intermediate sprint where Brüngger led Minnaard across the line to take second. Moments later, the Belgian crossed the line for the first time to start his lap of the finishing circuit with advantages of 1.50 and 4.00. However, his efforts weren’t rewarded as it all came down to a reduced bunch sprint.

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