Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) held up his open hand indicating a fifth stage victory at this year's Tour de France in Pau on Wednesday and confirming his dominance in the sprints. Yet the German sprinter insisted that so much success would not make him arrogant or overconfident as he chases further stage victories and the green points jersey.
Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) dominated the sprints in 2016, leaving Kittel frustrated. But even before the Manxman, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) exited the Tour, Kittel had his first victory. Since they've gone, he's won all of the sprint finales.
"It's a crazy Tour. We're achieving something outstanding. It's a lifetime experience. I'm still trying to realise what is happening," Kittel explained after the emotions of his latest victory subsided somewhat.
"This is not a small race, it's the Tour de France. It's a huge achievement for me and the team. But I know that everyone can be beaten and I always keep that in mind. It's dangerous to start thinking I'm unbeatable and [become] arrogant and that I don't need to stay focused on sprint."
In theory, there are still three other stages that could end in sprints in this year's Tour de France, with the very last on the Champs Elysees. Taking eight victories in one Tour would put Kittel on par with the record held by Charles Pelissier, Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens. Kittel has already caught and passed Erik Zabel and is now the most successful German rider at the Tour de France, but he avoided thinking so loftily.
"I'm very happy with five, my mentality hasn't changed," he argued. "Tomorrow (in the Pyrenees) won't be my day for sure and until the rest day on Monday, I'll just be surviving. I hope that after rest day we have another chance and then in Paris."
No secret sprint strategy
After Kittel's victory in Bergerac, Quick-Step Floors team manager Patrick Lefevere revealed to Cyclingnews that the German specifically asked to be dropped off behind the group of sprinters, so that he could follow a wheel up to the front and then open his sprint so as to avoid the fighting for position with the other sprinters.
Kittel seemed keen to keep his new sprint tactics a secret but confirmed that the innovative strategy had worked yet again. He knows he would not be able to do it without Julien Vermote chasing the break of the day, Jack Bauer and Philippe Gilbert giving their all in the latter part of the stages and trusted lead out man Fabio Sabatini protecting him in the final kilometre.
"It's not a really a new tactic or something special, we're just adapting to how the sprints are at the moment," he argued.
"For me, it works well. Every sprint has a certain risk; you can lose each other and then have to do it yourself. When I do it my way you can be boxed in but I know how to find my position, the right line and the right timing. I also have the legs, and it worked very well for me at this Tour de France.
"This time I sat on the wheels with Sabatini behind the Dimension Data guys, then I waited for the last corner and jumped onto a wheel. This time Bouhanni came past and so I took his wheel and then started my sprint.
"It's a feeling, a gut feeling, that you have to have. You can sit back and see who is fresh or has riders with them; you can see which to go up on. Today they started on the left, so I had to go early. Then I got on Matthews' wheel and won again.
"It's also true that Cavendish is not here and that Demare got sick. But that happens in the Tour de France to the sprinters and the GC guys. You have to try to survive and be lucky. I don't think I or the team made many mistakes in the first 10 days."
Thinking about Paris and the future
Kittel's fifth stage win gave him another 50 points in the green jersey competition. He now has a total of 335 points, with Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) distanced on just 202 points. Yet again Kittel refused to show any braggadocio.
"This success doesn't come for free, but after hard work," he pointed out, indicating the green jersey. "To defend it for three weeks is a new experience for me and I'm looking forward to that experience, but there's still a long way to go before Paris. We've still got to ride a lot of kilometres on the bike and in the mountains. We have to stay focused."
Kittel's success at the Tour de France has obviously changed his career. He considered his future and has a number of offers and interests from major teams. Quick-Step Floors is now very keen to keep him, but the likes of Katusha-Alpecin are also desperate to sign him. Alpecin is a German sponsor who love to advertise their shampoo with Kittel's blonde locks, while bike sponsor Canyon is another important German brand. They could make an offer that even Quick-Step Floors cannot match. A move away from Quick-Step Floors would also end any rivalry with Fernando Gaviria.
"There's always a lot of talking at the Tour de France because journalists have to write and ask questions," Kittel said, trying to avoid questions about his future plans but then actually giving several hints.
"For me, it's important to find a good team, to make a good decision for my future. But nothing is decided, talks are ongoing with several teams. I don't have to force any decision and focus on my race.
"I'm aware that Fernando Gaviria is a good sprinter and he's young. But I'm sure I'll find a good way for my future."