Kittel adds to his international résumé with Tour of California stage victory

Marcel Kittel has circled the globe winning bicycle races in Poland, Italy and Turkey. For his 80th professional victory, the powerful German sprinter achieved a career first Sunday.

With the assist of a handful of teammates who propelled the ninth-year professional to the front within the final mile, Kittel claimed his first career win in the United States on the opening day of the 12th annual Amgen Tour of California.

Kittel, who rides for the Belgian team Quick-Step Floors, completed the 104.1-mile out-and-back Stage 1 from Sacramento into the Delta on Highway 84 and returning inland past Hood and Clarksburg in 3 hours, 45 minutes and 35 seconds.

“It’s not a surprise that maybe the beginning of the race was not super intense,” Kittel said. “It was a really easy stage when you look at the profile. Some teams tried to go in the crosswinds after around 80km (50 miles). But nothing happened; the wind was not strong enough and the direction was not good enough. So in the end it came down to a sprint.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who won the Tour of California in 2015 and has a record 15 career stage wins in the event, couldn’t overcome Kittel and his five teammates leading him toward the finish. The reigning two-time road race world titlist finished about a bike length behind. Elia Viviani (Sky) of Italy was third.

With finish bonus times, Kittel will take a four-second lead over Sagan into Stage 2 of the 12th annual event. Viviani is third, six seconds back.

Evan Huffman (Rally) of Elk Grove finished 84th in the main field, four seconds behind Kittel.

I’m very happy how intelligent and also strong my team worked in the end,” Kittel said. “Chapeau (hat off) to everyone for the great lead out. It was really nice, promising also for the next week. We are all very happy to start the Tour of California like that.”

Kittel, who won his eighth race of the season, last participated in the Tour of California in 2012. But he rode with knee inflammation, never contested a sprint and withdrew in Stage 6.

“You have to adjust and to see how the team works together,” said Kittel, who has nine Tour de France stage wins, including one last year. “Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

The final sprint occurred after four riders spent about 3 1/2 hours at the front until shortly after crossing the start-finish line for the first of three 2.2-mile finishing circuits.

With a few adjustments due to road construction, the opening day route was longer but otherwise nearly identical to last year’s final stage. Young Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe finished 11th to secure his overall title and Mark Cavendish of Great Britain claimed his 10th career Tour of California stage.

Alaphilippe and Cavendish are not competing this year. But 135 riders from 17 teams began the weeklong event with Sacramento as the departure city for the third time four years.

Dutchman Floris Gerts (BMC), Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthcare) of Australia, Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk) of France and Ben Wolfe (Jelly Belly) of Greenville, S.C., pedaled off the front of the field a mile into the race. The foursome advanced quickly, building a 1 minute, 15-second lead after 10 minutes.

Thirty minutes later, the leaders increased their margin to 2:10, or about a one-mile advantage. Twenty miles into the race, the lead was reduced to two minutes as the field averaged 27.6 mph for the first two hours.

Wolfe jumped to a brief solo advantage with 28 1/2 miles left, but the three pursuers absorbed the American within a few minutes. Wolfe then pedaled to the front again alone and moved to a 20-second lead with 14 1/2 miles left before being caught again with about 11 miles left.

Clarke briefly pedaled alone at the front just after the field crossed the start-finish line for three 2.2-mile laps around the Capitol. But the last of the four daylong leaders was soon overtaken by the field.

“They (the peloton) never gave us too much of a leash,” Wolfe said. “We just wanted to make it to the circuits and we did.”

Stage 2 on Monday will take the men’s field 89.8 miles from Modesto to San Jose. The hilly stage will include five categorized climbs and the riders contending for the overall title will come to the forefront.

Following a brief two-lap ceremonial circuit around downtown Modesto beginning at 12:10 p.m., racing will begin at 12:25 p.m., with an estimated finish between 4 and 4:30 p.m.

After three lower categorized climbs beginning after 34 miles, the day’s major test will be the beyond category (the most severe climbing designation) to Mt. Hamilton, elevation 4,091 feet. The 4.3-mile climb begins after 55 miles and has an 8.7 percent average gradient. It’s been a focal point of the race several times.

A steep 12-mile descent will advance the field to the final test of the day, a 1.1-mile category 2 climb to Quinby Road Summit with an average gradient of 9.2 percent. The stage will finish with an undulating 13 miles into San Jose.

The weeklong race continues through Saturday’s Stage 7, a 77.6-mile road race from Mountain High Ski Area near Big Pines to Pasadena.