Kittel, unlike his primary rivals, is yet to get a victory on the board this season and at the end of stage three thought he had, powering over the finish line with a subtle smile on his face.
The 29-year-old was almost out of overhead screenshot when he started a huge acceleration, surfing right and then left in the closing metres to arrive on the line with actual winner Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb).
Pascal Ackermann (BORA-hansgrohe) rounded out the podium, with Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) placing fifth behind race leader Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) in the bunch sprint.
Kittel gathered with new Katusha-Alpecin teammates past the line in Abu Dhabi, asking Cycling Central if he’d won as officials finished deliberating.
The 14-time Tour de France stage winner was saddened by the response but gracious in accepting the loss on what was the final of three sprint stages here.
“It’s very disappointing but today was the first day I felt normal again. The last two days I struggled a bit with myself, I don’t know why, maybe the heat, but I am very optimistic and this is the first very good opportunity for us where we could smell the victory,” Kittel told reporters.
The result was a bit of a reversal for the German, who remarked he could now relate to how Ewan might have felt last year when he pipped the Australian on the same finish.
“I knew there was a little headwind and that I had to find the gap somehow through the bunch. I managed to do that just, I don’t know, 1000th of a second too late,” he said.
The Abu Dhabi Tour concludes this weekend with a 12.6km time trial and mountain stage, leaving Kittel to look ahead to Paris-Nice for his season first victory after being around but not on the mark here and at the Dubai Tour.
“I think nobody celebrated a second place like I did today, especially with the tour of Dubai and also the first two days here,” he said. “I really wanted to do well and today I felt I had good legs and had the chance to go for it. I thought I got it, but apparently not.
“When I look on my watch, it’s still February. We still have seven months of the season to go, 70 race days to go, there’s a lot of chances still to go for victories.”
Kittel has joined Katusha-Alpecin this season, with a host of other international names that collectively are working on assimilating to a new team as well as a new sprint train and role within it.
Last season he typically arrived quite late to a finish with former squad Quick-Step but has tried different approaches this month.
“It sounds easy, there’s a very good sprinter, like Kittel, and there’s a very good lead-out train from Katusha-Alpecin and now we just have to ride together and we are going to win a million races this year, but it’s not how it works,” he said.
“We have to find a way to work together and since we started in Dubai we have been getting better every day. You don’t always see the result but we are doing small steps and today we were at the point we can say it’s progress and be proud.
“I’m not letting myself down and the team is very motivated every day. I have huge respect for that, for the boys because you want to go for the win and almost every time it’s a bit of a defeat but you have to get up and go again for the next chance and that’s what we’re doing.
“I enjoy that process. Although it’s sometimes disappointing, it’s part of the sport and what we want to do to develop our lead-out into the world’s best.”