The Quick-Step leader appeared to injure his shoulder and elbow in a fall that saw he and several other riders in the bunch come down in the opening 20 kilometres of the 183km stage from La Mure to Serre Chevalier.
Kittel was attended to and persisted until the first climb, reaching the summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer, but there called it quits and got into a team car.
Sports director Brian Holm initially didn’t think the crash was that serious but admitted the 29-year-old hadn’t felt well after Monday’s second rest day and may have been affected by illness that saw teammate Philippe Gilbert abandon yesterday.
“The only thing I heard him asking about in the race when he crashed was honestly his new sunglasses, so at that point I thought he was pretty alright. Who would be really bad and then asking for new sunglasses?” Holm said.
“I thought he was fine. I was wrong.
“We sort of knew yesterday after the rest day to be honest, he wasn’t super on the rest day. Gilbert and a few more guys didn’t feel 100 per cent on the rest day. Maybe it was that, maybe it was the crash … But he went down and started with new sunglasses. He’s a stylish rider, don’t forget it.”
Kittel got dropped earlier than anticipated in stage 16 on Tuesday when Michael Matthews and his Sunweb team worked to isolate the then green jersey in crosswinds, successfully shortening the latter’s deficit to the points classification leader.
He was the dominant pure sprinter of the 104th edition of the race and nearly untouchable in flat stages of which he won five with the majority backing of his squad, bringing his career total stage victories to 14.
“I am very disappointed and I don’t know how to describe my feelings at the moment," Kittel said in a team statement.
"To go home with five stage victories is great, but to go home because of a crash and before hitting Paris is a major disappointment."
“I couldn’t do anything to avoid that crash and lost some skin on my shoulder, back, elbow and hip, which are a bit swollen. I tried to carry on, but pedaling was just painful, especially as in the last couple of days I had to fight with stomach problems and a cold."
Quick-Step still has Dan Martin in the race, who is hunting for a stage win in the Alps and currently sits sixth overall – two minutes and 37 seconds down on yellow jersey Chris Froome (Sky) – with four stages remaining.
“Dan did very well today. He can have the whole team but I don’t think it would be very useful, maybe on the Champs Elysees we can help him a little bit,” Holm quipped.
“He’s pretty good on his own.”
“Everybody wants us to be depressed but unfortunately we’re not. We’ve had a great Tour.”