When the course of the 2016 Tour de France was announced back in October, a flat first stage in Normandy meant that several sprinters received the unique chance to capture the race leader’s yellow jersey at Utah Beach.
A few weeks earlier, Etixx-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere signed German powerhouse Marcel Kittel, who was looking for a new team after a very difficult 2015 season. The then-27-year-old German rider replaced Mark Cavendish as top sprinter at the Belgian team. Kittel rediscovered his fast legs, and at the Tour de France he was expected to deliver again after missing out in 2015. It wasn’t to be on Saturday, however, as Kittel was beaten at Utah Beach by Cavendish (Dimension Data).
Kittel was humble in defeat and congratulated Cavendish with his win. “It’s not a surprise that Cav is so fast. He’s still one of the world’s fastest sprinters. I really respect him. He did a great sprint today. It’s no shame to lose against him,” Kittel said.
At the finish line, a few steps away from Utah Beach it was clear that Lefevre was a disappointed man. “This was a unique opportunity that doesn’t come back. The whole year we were hoping for today but it wasn’t to be,” Lefevre said.
Kittel was obviously also disappointed. “We should’ve finished first, not second,” Kittel said. “I had to start the sprint a bit too early but it’s not the end of the world and certainly not the end the chances for us at the Tour de France.”
After passing through some turns in Sainte-Marie-Du-Mont, the final kilometres of the opening stage were slightly downhill with a strong tailwind blowing the peloton at high speed towards Utah Beach. The passage of the village turned out to have ruined the chances of the Etixx-QuickStep team.
"The race circumstances forced us to the left side of the road," Kittel said.
Lefevere explained what went wrong. “We made a tactical mistake. Wilfried Peeters did the reconnaissance for us and told us about the village at seven kilometres. Wilfried told us to ride on the left when exiting the village. Petr Vakoc was in the lead but he kept riding on the left hand side. He was a bit too fast. Then the riders from Dimension came and in the middle of the road there were a few guys from Sky, so it wasn’t possible to move to the right.”
Riding on the lefthand side of the road meant that Kittel had to move up in the wind and start his sprint from far out. “The sprint was somewhat of a ‘roulette’ and Mark Cavendish was most lucky. With 350 metres to go I was forced to start my sprint. Mark Cavendish had the luck that Peter Sagan launched his sprint which offered him the space to go too. Then he showed ‘punch’, that’s Mark Cavendish. I didn’t stand a chance against someone who started his sprint 100 metres later,” Kittel said.
Lefevere realized his team didn’t have a smooth lead-out. “Tony Martin received a push. He’s a guy who’s made to ride in front, not for pushing in the sprint. Fabio Sabatini was on his limit while the sprint hadn’t even started. He lost the wheel and Marcel had to pass by through the wind. Cav is smaller and he was well protected against the wind,” Lefevre said.
Also the gearing options might’ve been crucial in the fast sprint on Saturday. Lefevere suggested that Kittel might’ve been on a too small gear. “It was really fast. Vakoc was unable to go any faster with the gear he had. With a 53x13 gear you’re going at more than 70-80 km/h. Maybe a 54 chain ring was needed. Then again, the sprint was slightly uphill and Marcel didn’t want to change it. I don’t know what Cavendish used. I think we were beaten before the sprint, not in the sprint.”
The second stage of the Tour de France leads the peloton from Saint-Lô to an uphill finish in Cherbourg-En-Cotentin. Lefevre didn’t expect Kittel to grab his first stage win on Sunday. “Tomorrow is too hard for Marcel. We’ve got Julian Alaphilippe.”