Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) claimed his first head-to-head victory against Mark Cavendish (Team Sky) at Scheldeprijs and then added insult to injury by claiming the very prize that the Manxman had coveted, a diamond presented by the city of Antwerp.
It was Kittel's second successive Scheldeprijs victory and he admitted that Cavendish's presence lends greater cachet to this year's triumph. The two sprinters have raced against one another infrequently since Kittel turned professional in 2011, and finally getting the better of Cavendish was, in effect, the formal delivery of the German's credentials as a member of the sprinting elite.
"I think this is the first time that I beat him in a straight sprint," Kittel said afterwards. "For me that's the direction that I want to go: to be one of the best sprinters in the world, and I think today was a very good step in that direction. I want to be well up as a sprinter and get big wins, and it's good to have this one in the pocket."
Cavendish, of course, is rarely if ever beaten for pure speed and he started his sprint from significantly further back than Kittel but ran out of road before they dived for the line. Even so, a bunch sprint does not take place in a vacuum, and Kittel showed poise and power to eke out and then grab his opportunity.
"It was always pretty hectic at Scheldeprijs. There are so many sprinters and simply not enough space for every team. Most of the time you end up in a mix of some lead-out guys from a lot of teams and then you do the sprint," said Kittel. "With 700 metres to go, I thought I was boxed in but Tom Veelers came on the left side, and then he brought me to the front and did a lead-out."
Not that it was all plain sailing from there. After emerging from the stormy waters of the peloton, Kittel still had to navigate a headwind to reach the line ahead of the fast-closing Cavendish. "I started my sprint early on the left side and maybe that surprised him because there was some headwind on the finish line," said Kittel. "If I'd been totally in the front and could have chosen when to start my sprint, I would have probably have started a bit later, but I just had to go when I did."
As well as a prestigious scalp, there was an additional accolade awaiting Kittel atop the podium. The city of Antwerp's old custom of presenting a diamond to the Scheldeprijs winner was discontinued shortly before Cavendish chalked up the first of his record three victories in 2007, but with his gentle encouragement, the tradition was reinstated for this year's race.
Kittel was unaware of the story behind his prize until it was explained to him in the press room afterwards. "Oh shit," he grimaced. "Maybe they can give one next year again."
Before then, however, Kittel will be hoping for a series of re-matches with Cavendish at the Tour de France. Illness ended his Tour prematurely last year ("It was a shit start - literally - and I'm really looking forward to this year's Tour to do it better," he grinned) and Kittel is already making plans for his preparation.
"It's not certain what my last races before the Tour will be, but it is certain that I will have a high altitude camp beforehand," he said. "The next challenge is to find a good location. It's not easy for a sprinter as there are not a lot of places where you can be at altitude but still train on the flat."
Kittel was also asked for his reaction to the news that the Dutch Cycling Federation's doping questionnaire, issued to all riders and staff from Dutch-registered teams, had not yielded confessions beyond those made by directeurs sportifs Rudi Kemna (Argos-Shimano) and Grischa Nierman (Rabobank Continental) earlier this year.
"I cannot look in the heads of everyone there. Now the responsible people have to find an answer to the questions they have," Kittel said. "It's definitely not satisfying, but it's not only up to me. The team managers have to talk now and discuss it, and I expect that from them."
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