Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) proved that he is on track for another successful Tour de France when he won the first big sprint battle with André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) at the Ster ZLM Toer. While Greipel was never in contention and finished back in 27th, Kittel held off Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) and Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) to take both the stage win and the leader’s jersey in the five-day race.
Going into today’s first stage of the Ster ZLM Toer, Marcel Kittel hadn’t done a bunch sprint since he won stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia in Dublin. However, the German proved that he is definitely ready for his upcoming battles at the Tour de France when he won today’s highly anticipated battle with key rival André Greipel in the flat Dutch race.
With very little wind, all was set for a big bunch sprint and the sprint teams made sure to keep things under control all day. With a little more than 10km to go, the early break was caught and it was Lotto Belisol who dominated proceedings in a quest to set up Greipel for the win.
Giant-Shimano and Omega Pharma-Quick Step were also up there in a fierce battle between some of the strongest lead-out trains in the world but the sprinters had a brief scare when a rider from Garmin-Sharp and one from Omega Pharma-Quick Step escaped in the finale. However, they quickly got back in control and set such a hard pace that the bunch split in two, leaving just 40 riders to contest the sprint.
With 2km to go, Belkin took control in a quest to set up last year’s winner of the stage Theo Bos but the Dutch team lost the battle to Giant-Shimano who again showed that they are some of the strongest in the business. Kittel’s team kept control all the way to the finish before launching their German sprinter off the front to take another sprint victory.
Behind, Greipel soon realized that he was not in a position to do the sprint and he rolled across the line in 27th. Instead, Kittel’s nearest rivals were Tyler Farrar and Gianni Meersman who completed the podium.
As Kittel had finished fifth in yesterday’s prologue, the 10 bonus seconds were enough to elevate him into the race while Meersman moved into second ahead of previous leader Philippe Gilbert (BMC). Kittel takes a 10-second lead over Meersman into tomorrow’s second stage which is a lot harder than today’s. At the midpoint the riders will go up several climbs known from the Amstel Gold Race but as the final half is flat or descending, another bunch sprint is expected.
One for the sprinters
After the opening prologue, the Ster ZLM Toer continued with a stage that very much characterizes the sprint-friendly race. The stage brought them over 183.9 completely flat kilometres from Ruchpen to St. Willibrord which consisted of 50 opening kilometres, two laps of a 56km circuit and one lap of a 21.2km circuit around the finishing city.
All riders that finished yesterday’s stage took the start under relatively pleasant weather conditions. Most notably Kenneth Vanbilsen (Topsport Vlaanderen) who collided with a spectator in yesterday’s prologue and was transported from the scene in an ambulance, was allowed to continue in the race, starting the stage as the last rider in the standings with a time deficit of 49 minutes.
An early break
With most riders expecting the stage to be controlled by the sprint teams, it took some time for the first attacks to be launched and pretty early a 4-rider break was created. Nicola Testi (Androni), Alphonse Vermote (Vastgodservice), Timo Roosen (Rabobank) and Jan-Willem van het Schip (Koga) decided to try to defy the odds and very soon had a 4-minute gap.
Vermote had to battle his way back to the group after a puncture while a small crash disrupted the progress of the peloton but the bunch always kept the escapees tightly under control. They allowed the gap to grow to 5 minutes before the BMC team of race leader Gilbert took control.
A crash brought down four riders, including Jetse Bol who was forced to abandon the race. Meanwhile, BMC kept the gap stable between the 4- and 5-minute marks.
Van het Schip beat Testi and Roosen in the first intermediate sprint after 50km of racing while Lasse Norman (Garmin) became the next rider to abandon the race. With 80km to go, the peloton upped the pace slightly and brought the gap down to 3.30 where they again stabilized the situation
Lotto start to chase
Lotto Belisol had now taken control and they started to bring down the gap. With 50km to go, it was only 2 minutes and with 30km to go, it was only 1.10.
The escapees reacted well and still had 45 seconds in hand when they crossed the line for the penultimate time. Roosen beat Testi and van het Schip in the final intermediate sprint before the quartet again started to collaborate.
The break is caught
With 20km to go, the gap was 30 seconds and it had now started to rain, making the roads very slippery. Just before the 10km to go mark, the front group was caught which opened the door for an attack from a Rabobank rider.
Lotto Belisol were still in control and brought the young rider back before Giant-Shimano and OPQS took over. Moments later, a rider from OPQS and one from Garmin attacked but with 5km to go, it was back together.
The peloton split in two and so only 40 riders were left to contest the sprint. Belkin tried to dominate the finale but in the end it was Giant-Shimano that delivered Kittel to another victory.
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