Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Australian Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) all punctured within the final 12km of the 176.5km flat stage from Stockton to Elk Grove.
Ewan flatted with about 10km remaining but recovered to finish second behind Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), in what was a podium repeat of the race opener in Long Beach, with world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) third.
“I guess there was something on the road because it’s unusual for that many people to puncture at the same moment,” Ewan said. “I noticed it when there was a right, left on that big straight road coming in. I thought maybe I’d gone over some oil or something because my back wheel was slipping a lot, and then after a while it went flat.”
Kittel had made his intent for the sprint stage clear from the depart. The German apparently didn’t do media interviews in the morning, and set teammates, notably including Reto Hollenstein, to task early, the outfit setting a tempo that rivals described as “uncomfortable”.
It helped explain the misery all over his face at the finish, which the 14-time Tour de France stage winner wasn’t able to contest after he suffered a slow –release puncture with about 5km to go. Teammate Rick Zabel, who placed fourth on the stage, stayed in the bunch with Australian Nathan Haas while some of Kittel’s other teammates dropped back in an attempt to pace him back.
“I was close but I exploded when I was almost back in the peloton,” said Kittel, who came in one minute and 26 seconds behind Gaviria.
“I tell you, it’s disappointing because the team worked so good, Reto was riding so strong, and to, to not get anything out of it … Okay, a fourth place is okay but we wanted to win.”
Kittel still thanked his teammates at the finish of a day he has one more chance to rectify in Sacramento on Saturday.
“Really shit luck,” he concluded with emphasis.
Cavendish perhaps copped the worst of that with his race unravelling twice. The Manxman punctured with 12km remaining and was paced back-on, only to be held-up by a crash that involved teammates Mark Renshaw, Julien Vermote and Jay Robert Thomson with 4km to go.
“I waited in the bunch for him, and then it was pretty much a kilometre after he came back to me that we all crashed. I think he avoided it,” Renshaw said.
The tour continues tomorrow with a 196.5km mountain stage to South Lake Tahoe, which will determine the overall classification that Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) leads, 23 seconds ahead of Egan Bernal (Sky).
Ewan has a three second buffer on Gaviria in the hunt for the green jersey.
The pair exchanged race programs as they sat in a press conference, now the definitive men to beat here. Mitchelton-Scott despite being somewhat caught in the drama of the day still had a lead-out that levelled with Gaviria’s within the final 2km.
“He’s always a tough opposition for me,” Ewan said of his contemporary. “I don’t know if there is that much my team can do, maybe I just need to go a bit faster.
“We were unlucky today with the puncture because we had to use guys early that we wanted to use later on in the race, and then we ran a little bit short. They did a great job still to get me to where I needed to be. I was just a few wheels behind Fernando in the sprint.”