KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — Twenty-three-year-old German sprint phenom Marcel Kittel (Project 1t4i) won stage 2 of Three Days of De Panne Wednesday, a field sprint into Koksijde after 216km of racing.
Race leader Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) did not contest the sprint, opting to soft-pedal in the final 5km, giving up the leader’s jersey and several minutes on the general classification. Sagan told VeloNews Tuesday that he was using De Panne as a training race, which was confirmed by his smiling wave to the TV cameras as the front of the pack barreled into Koksijde for the field sprint.
Sagan’s decision may have been fortuitous, as several riders hit the deck or were held up with a back-of–the-pack crash during the sprint wind-up, caused when riders’ wheels slotted into parallel train tracks. The crash occurred within the final 3km, so no riders were penalized the approximately 45 seconds lost.
Norwegian national champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), who finished fourth in Oudenaarde on stage 1 and second in Koksijde, took the race lead.
UnitedHealthcare’s Boy Van Poppel finished third on the stage, with Kenny Van Hummel (Vacansoleil-DCM) in fourth.
The day was marked by a three-man breakaway that opened up a maximum seven-minute advantage. In the break were Andy Cappelle (Accent Jobs-Willems Veranda’s), Jonathan Breyne (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) and Brian Vandborg (SpiderTech-C10).
As the route approached the coastal town of Koksijde, wind played havoc with both the peloton and the breakaway.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step was aggressive at the front of the pack, repeatedly driving the chase, forming echelons, stringing out the field single-file, and occasionally causing splits in the peloton. With 75km to go a major split occurred, with GC favorites Lieuwe Westra and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil), Svein Tuft (SpiderTech) and Leif Hoste (Accent Jobs) all on the wrong side of the split. Eleven kilometers later, however, the gap was closed.
Up the road, first Vandborg and then Breyne were gapped off in the crosswinds, and with 40km to go, Cappelle forged on alone, riding through the majority of three finishing circuits in Koksijde on his own, the peloton feathering a 30-second gap.
“I’m always very motivated to race around here,” said Cappelle, who hails from nearby Oostende. “I wanted to give my team something back and put them on the map; it’s a new team, and a fairly small team. I wanted to show our jersey and give the rest of the guys a bit of a morale boost before the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.”
Cappelle was caught with 11km to go, opening the door for the inevitable field sprint. As the paced ramped up, Sagan sat up and soft-pedaled to the finish. A crash in the peloton with 2km to go delayed several riders, including GreenEdge GC contenders Tuft and Luke Durbridge, but did not have an effect on the general classification.
The final kilometer was a long, straight line to the finish — perfect, Kittel said, for his strengths.
“When I saw the finish line the first time, I said ‘Yes, that’s perfect for me,’” Kittel said. “It was one kilometer long, straight, with a tailwind and high speed. That’s something I really like.
“It may have looked like an easy sprint, but it was not so easy,” he said. “There were a lot of people there, but the team put me in a good position, and then I had to fight my way through it, with Van Hummel on the right and Kristoff on the left. I just gave it everything and made it through in the middle. I want to thank the team, they worked very hard for me.”
Thursday brings a double day of racing, with a short, fast, flat and likely windy 112km stage in the morning and a flat-but-windy, 14.7km out-and-back time trial in the afternoon. With TT specialists like Westra, Tuft and Jesse Sergent (RadioShack-Nissan) in the field, Kristoff is unlikely to win the overall, but a stage win is still up for grabs Thursday morning.
“I’m quite surprised with the race leadership,” said Kristoff. “I’m obviously very happy to be leading both the general classification and the points classification. I would have been even happier if I won. I was very close to the victory, but Kittel is a great sprinter, he had a perfect acceleration, while maybe I started a little early, losing some power in the last meters. It will be hard to take the overall victory, we’re all very close in general classification, but I’ll do my best.”