Tour de France countdown: 9 days to go until Leeds
It's been an odd build-up to the Tour de France for Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano). But is that such a bad thing? Having captured two stages in the Giro d'Italia in stunning style, he made a sudden abandon of the race with a fever on stage four. His recent triumphs in the Ster-ZLM Toer, though, would suggest he is right where he wants to be for the build-up to the Tour.
Kittel's first win in last year's Tour de France was also a shade unusual, coming as it did in the crash-ridden opening stage: he had no idea, he says, that the finish had shifted first to the three-kilometres-to-go banner, and then, when the Orica-GreenEdge team bus finally was dislodged from the finishing gantry, back to the original course. A shrug of the shoulders and then a wry: "Just as well." Indeed.
So what does he make of the first stage to Harrogate and his chances there? Kittel, for one, tells Cyclingnews he is not convinced that it will conclude in a bunch sprint. "If the teams decide to make it really fast in the hilly middle part, then I don't know if that will happen, it'll be hard [for the pure sprinters] to be there in the final."
Should that happen, Giant's plan 'B' would then kick into action, in the shape of John Degenkolb. "That final part is made for John - if the racing has been hard before," creating, Kittel says, "the kind of terrain and situation where he is world-class, and that's also why I say he should win. So in Giant, it's not just me for the win - we have plenty of cards to play."
However, with four wins last year, Kittel could not deny he is the defending champion when it comes to Tour bunch sprints. Yet he shrugs off the label of 'fastest man in the world' - given to him, amongst others by Orica-Green Edge's Michael Matthews, the Giro leader whilst Kittel was racking up the victories.
"I can be confident enough to say I've beaten the best sprinters in the world, and that gives me the confidence for the next races to try and be there and to beat them again," he reflects, "I think it depends on the situation."
"Of course, if I could repeat last year's situation, and take four wins, I wouldn't say no!. But for me that was 2013, even if of course they are very nice memories and great for my confidence for 2014."
"But this is a new race now, everything is possible, big success and big defeats: anything can happen."
"In any case, just getting one stage victory in the Tour de France is a success. So my goal for this year is to win a stage and if I win that I will be satisfied with my Tour. And it would be great to finish it, too."
"The green jersey? We'll see what happens. Going for intermediate sprints? So far, they're not on my radar. But we'll have a chat in the team in the final runup to the Tour: never say never."
If Kittel puts himself, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) on a similar level in terms of sprinting, one thing that makes their battles so intriguing is that they have such very different ways of winning. Whilst Cavendish's 'jump' is in a world class of its own, Kittel says his own best sprint weapon is pure power: or as he puts it, "the biggest difference between me and the others is that I can maintain a very high speed for very a long period of time."
"The key to winning is knowing, depending on the type of course, how long you will have to hold that high speed in a sprint." - and of course, being able to put theory into practice. "If it's uphill it's maybe 150 metres, if downhill it's 300 metres. It really depends on the finish." And whilst Cavendish will be doing his utmost to ensure he succeeds, not Kittel, the German points out "We shouldn't underestimate André Greipel, specially for those harder stages, too. But anyway, a lot depends on how well your team is racing, not just yourself. If it goes perfectly, I can beat those guys."
Compared to the 2013 season, one new sprint weapon that Kittel has unleashed on the world this year was a devastating late acceleration. First seen in the Giro d'Italia's stage at Dublin when he was trailing the other sprinters by five or six bike lengths with 100 metres to go, but produced enough power to get more than half a bike length on runner-up Ben Swift (Team Sky), it could be very useful indeed in the Tour de France.
"It was different," Kittel recalls with a smile. "I did not really think about it, I just thought 'I have to go now', I wasn't sure if I could make it. It was more an attack than a sprint."
"In the end I was surprised that I could make up that much space in such a short amount of time. It was very encouraging for me to see win from such a situation, but" - he says with disarming honesty - "if there were guys like Greipel or Cavendish ahead of me in a Tour de France sprint, I wouldn't have been able to do that."
If Dublin was the high point of Kittel's season so far, a little over 24 hours later, though, Kittel was out of the race, having suddenly gone down with a very high fever. He flew all the way to Bari, Italy, as the race transferred back to home soil, but then had to quit with an illness.
"It was very hard for me to leave the race that way. It was a 50-50 chance I stayed, what with the rain and bad weather, too. But I'm sorry I had to go. I had no plans to leave, I wanted to continue as far as possible."
"When that happened I came here," - to Sierra Nevada ski station in Spain, for altitude training, where he talks to Cyclingnews. "I have done altitude training before, three times here. So I know I will be here for 20 days, it's pretty boring, but I know what to do, like bring plenty of books and movies."
Kittel describes the lack of social life outside the Sierra Nevada ski station (in summer, we hasten to add, in winter it is another story altogether...) as "good and bad. You have to concentrate on training. Most of all it's about getting the base level a little bit higher, so we're doing a lot of hours. We also do intensity work, just to make another step up combined with the effect of the altitude. It's an important training block."
"Maybe I'll get to the Tour with fewer race days than in 2013, but that's not a problem for me. In fact, one big block of training here and then a few minor races as a buildup is probably better for me."
And if things don't go the way he likes, is Kittel as ferociously self-critical as Cavendish can be? "I try to look for reasons why I lost, but I try to do that together with my team-mates. There always has to be a point in the bunch sprint where we made a mistake. Either way it doesn't eat me up. I look at things calmly."
On the other hand, the quiet, determined tone he uses doesn't make Kittel sound like a rider who sees losing as an option.
"I feel pretty confident I'll be as good as I was last year, and that's what matters," he says.
"I think it's something you can say about any sprinter. As long as he's fresh enough and knows he can make it to the finish, whatever they throw at him in the final, it won't make him give up. He will try to win." And after taking the first stage in both his previous two Grand Tours in radically different circumstances, Kittel's track record is certainly testament to that.
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