Although Mark Cavendish was eclipsed by Marcel Kittel in last year’s Tour de France, netting two stages to Kittel’s four and losing his mantle of the fastest rider in the world, the German sprinter has said he remains very wary of the Briton and sees him as the rider to beat in this year’s race.
The two riders have had very little overlap in their programmes this season, with the Dubai Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico being two exceptions.
Neither figured in the sprints in the former, while Cavendish picked up a stage win in the latter.
As a result they haven’t had the opportunity to compare their form. However Kittel knows that clash is coming this Saturday on stage one of the Tour de France, and he is ready for a huge battle on both that day and in the subsequent sprint stages.
“I think he is not an old rider; I still think he is a very good sprinter,” Kittel told CyclingTips, responding when asked if he believed that Cavendish might be slowing down at 29 years of age. “Especially with his team in support for this year’s Tour and all the races in general.
“He will be our enemy number one. We will concentrate on Quick Step and also Lotto [André Greipel’s Lotto Belisol team – ed.] when we go in the sprints in the Tour.”
Kittel had not taken a Tour de France stage before last year’s race, but quickly put that statistic right. He triumphed on stage one, earning the first yellow jersey of the race, and then blasted home first again on stages 10, 12 and 21.
Cavendish was particularly disappointed to miss out on the last of those. The Manxman had previously been unbeaten on the Champs Elysees but, despite his complete focus on trying to continue his run of success there, there was no stopping Kittel. The German he underlined his new status as the world’s fastest sprinter in the streets of Paris.
One year on, he’s relishing the thoughts of crossing swords again with Cavendish, Greipel, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and others.
“What happens at the Tour is that you automatically push each other to give your very best,” Kittel said, speaking about the buzz of the world’s biggest race. “If you know that the very best sprinters are at the start, then you really want to win. Personally I am looking forward to the race.”
“I am pretty sure that if I changed, all my friends would give me a kick in my ass”
Prior to last year’s Tour, Kittel was seen as one of the fastest sprinters on the circuit but, despite two wins in Scheldeprijs, there was a feeling that he was a level below Cavendish. His Tour de France campaign put a definitive line through that notion, showing that he had moved to a new standard in his career.
However cycling history has however many examples of riders who have shone in one Tour and then not reached the same level again the following season. Getting to the top was one thing; staying there would be another.
Kittels’ performances this season have seen him achieve the latter. He has taken eight wins thus far, including a third consecutive Scheldeprijs, but it is his Giro d’Italia ride which really impressed. He triumphed on stage two to Belfast and then unleashed an utterly staggering sprint on the following day’s race to Dublin.
Badly placed with 400 metres to go, the Giant Shimano rider looked utterly out of position and without a hope of taking the win. However he made up a massive amount of ground between there and the line, overhauling every rider in front of him and scooping another victory.
“In terms of the victories I remember the most this year, I think without doubt it is the Giro,” he said, assessing his season to date. “Winning those two stages there was great. I am also really happy about winning the third time in a row in Scheldeprijs. That also makes me happy.”
Asked if his victories this far this season are a confirmation of what he achieved in last year’s Tour, he acknowledged that he needed to keep winning after setting such a high standard for himself.
“I always said that I would like to race in the biggest races and against the best guys. I am actually continuing this process now,” he said. “I am really happy about my start in the new season after that Tour de France of last year. I think that changed a lot for me.
“It is good that things this season went more or less according to plan.”
As much as continuing to win is important for his career, so too is his ability to keep things in balance and to remain level-headed. He is down to earth and wants to remain that way. “I think I am still the same,” he said, comparing the Kittel of June 2013 to how he is now. “Of course expectations are different, but for me personally the goals are the same. The team is the same, completely dedicated to doing sprints in the Tour de France. It is in some ways the same as last year.
“But of course when you see what is happening before this Tour [compared to that of 2013]…there are more media requests. There is also the way that other teams look at us in races now. It has changed, of course.”
He said he has important anchors in his life to make sure that things remain in perspective. He may be the fastest rider inside the final 200 metres – although he needs to succeed at this year’s Tour to renew his lease on that title – but he said that he is determined to keep his feet on the ground.
“I think that is very important. I want to continue as a rider, and as a person, as I did before,” he explained. “That is very important for me. I am pretty sure that if I changed, all my friends would tell me if there was something wrong with me. They would give me a kick in my ass.”
Tour build-up and goals:
Kittel took a break from racing after withdrawing ill from the Giro d’Italia; his Tour preparation included periods training at altitude, something he says that he has done for the past ‘seven or eight years.’
“I know that my body reacts well to it,” he explained. “I think for a sprinter, it is maybe unusual, but it is really good to train also in the mountains. To get that feeling again for the long climbs, and to do the power training to improve with the uphills. I had a good time again there with Johnny [John Degenkolb].”
The ZLM Toer represented his first race back after the Giro and went well; he was fifth in the prologue, and then won stage one. He had hoped to notch up another victory on stage five, but he and his team were delayed behind a crash.
He looks on the bright side, though, believing that a lesson may have been learned.
“Of course, I would also like to have won one of the other stages. We were a little bit unlucky being behind that crash and not being able to come back in the last two kilometres…it was not possible anymore at that point,” he said.
“So it happened that way, but sometimes it is also too to be in a situation like that before the next race. It means you know the situation better and to avoid the mistake [next time]. In that case, I think that’s okay.
“In general my confidence is good, especially after the ZLM Toer. I feel good on the bike. We won a stage there. We know that the sprints in the race went well and so I think we can be confident ahead of the Tour.”
Publicly at least, Kittel isn’t saying he wants to equal his four stage wins of last year. He might well want to do that, but by setting the bar a little lower in terms of his targets, he takes pressure off himself.
He also sets himself up to exceed the expectations he’s laid out.
“For me personally, there are two goals that I would like to reach,” he said, when asked to define his objectives heading into the race. “One of them is to win a stage. The other one is to finish the Tour de France.”
So what about wearing the yellow jersey, as he did last year?
“I didn’t mention it directly,” he answered, clearly expecting the follow up question. “The first stage…I think it is a good stage for us and the team. It could be very difficult, but it could also be controlled. Hopefully it will end in a sprint with the whole peloton. In that case, I would like to use that opportunity.
“If it’s the case that the stage is very hard, we still have John [Degenkolb] as a sprinter. That [selective] race would suit him perfectly. I think we as a team don’t have to worry about that.”
Kittel turned 26 years of age in May and is still developing as a rider. He comes under pressure on hillier courses and loses out as a result to riders who can get over such climbs, such as Peter Sagan.
The Slovakian has taken the green jersey in the past two Tours; while he just took one Tour stage last year, he had a level of consistency which earned him enough points to dominate the contest for the Maillot Vert.
Kittel’s four stages were offset by the points he lost in other places; he ended up fourth overall in the contest, with his 222 points just over half the number clocked up by Sagan.
He’s a year older and stronger now, but it remains to be seen if he can contend for the green jersey in this year’s Tour.
He’s not betting the house on it. “I don’t know if I should already have that directly on my goals for this year,” he admitted. “I think it is enough also for 2014 to concentrate on the stages and on finishing the race.”
Kittel might not say it, but a bigger goal is to prove once again he’s the fastest Tour sprinter in the peloton. Cavendish, Sagan, Greipel and others are also hunting that title, but if he can replicate the form he showed on stage three of the Giro, it will take a very strong rider to get the better of him in July.