Following 10 days of training with Giant-Alpecin in Cambril, Spain, Marcel Kittel told Cyclingnews that he and his team are still working out whether he will target the green points jersey in next year's Tour de France, but a shot at another yellow jersey in the first week is definitely on the radar.
The 26-year-old German sprinter, who has eight Tour stage wins to his credit over the past two years, wore the first maillot jaunes of the 2013 and 2014 Tours after consecutive opening-day wins. Next year's stage 1 time trial in Utrecht, the Netherlands, makes a repeat performance unlikely, but he wouldn't rule out the possibility of wearing yellow during the first week.
A handful of relatively flat stages, combined with finish-line time bonuses that have been re-instituted for the first time since 2008, will put the fast finishers back in the running for the early overall race lead. Kittel, who won a bronze at the U23 time trial world championships in 2010, would no doubt like to wear yellow again.
"It's a pretty short time trial, only 14km," he said. "I think some of the sprinters will be hoping to put in a good performance in the time trial and then get some time back on stage 2."
Changes to the green jersey points distribution system, which now heavily favours stage wins over intermediate sprints, could put Kittel in the running for his first-ever overall green jersey. He's twice taken fourth in the competition, which has been owned for the past three years by Peter Sagan (Tinkoff Saxo). But Kittel couldn't be drawn out on whether he'll make a run at being the man in green when the race finishes on the Champs Elysees.
Kittel's reluctance to declare his intentions for July should be expected. Like most of his peers, he prefers to keep his cards close to his chest until the last possible moment. It's not a form of bluffing, he says, rather it's a way of managing expectations.
Even so, expectations will be high next year for Kittel, whose burst of recent stage victories – including ending Mark Cavendish's streak of four consecutive wins on the Champs Elysees, where Kittel has won the past two years – has established the Giant team leader as one of the fastest sprinters, if not the fastest, in the game today.
Although Kittel appears to have usurped Cavendish's spot at the top of the sprinters' hierarchy, he's quick not to count out the 2011 world champion, who claims 25 Tour stage wins among his palmares, as one of his top rivals.
"Cavendish is very fast," Kittel said. "When he was winning on HTC, there wasn't as much competition as there is now. There are so many guys who are there now and believe they have a chance, it is just much harder to win."
Cavendish crashed out of this year's Tour on the first day during the sprint in Yorkshire, but he will be back this year with an Etixx-Quickstep squad that will likely be tailor-made for the cobbles and the expected crosswinds in the first week. Kittel acknowledged that Cavendish will be surrounded by one of the best Classics teams in the world, but he said his own team has proven itself in the same conditions.
"We also don't have to hide," he said. "So like I said before, the competition is at a very high level, but I'm also sure that we can play a role there."
Kittel has good reason to have faith in his team, especially his sprint train, which has delivered him to victory nearly 60 times since he joined the squad in 2011. The train is one part of the program that Kittel believes is just starting to hit its stride.
"I would say it takes two or three years, maybe four, to have a team together with riders that all have the same focus, but also to implement the philosophy how we act as as a team," he said. "To develop this to where every rider actually lives it, that takes also at least four years, I would say. Really, maybe even five so that everyone really understands, 'Ok, I'm here now, we've got that goal, that's my job.'
"If we win in the end, everyone contributed. Everyone has worked for that success and owns part of that success. That's what I really like about our team. On the other hand, it's really not so easy, and not everyone fits in it."
One of the riders who clearly fits into Giant-Alpecin is John Degenkolb, who came to the team in 2012 from HTC-Highroad. The 25-year-old German is a good friend of Kittel's and has been a key part of the team's Tour de France success over the past two years. He's also a winner in his own right.
Degenkolb used his own fast finish to win four stages and the points classification this year at the Vuelta a Espana. He won three stages at Tour Med, took victory at Gent Wevelgem and finished second twice in stages of this year's Tour.
Issues can sometimes arise when one team has two talented, ambitious sprinters, but Kittel said he doesn't foresee any problems; he hopes to remain teammates with Degenkolb for a long time.
"I personally don't see any conflict with John, and I'm pretty sure he sees it the same way," Kittel said. "But of course, we always have to talk about the moments at races like the Tour de France or even the Spring Classics, where we both have the same interests.
"We'll have a discussion, and in the end we'll have an agreement, and that's the way we go. And then everyone is satisfied with it. I think we've known each other too long to start a fight about it. That's not in my expectations."
Kittel left Spain over the weekend and will spend Christmas and the New Year holiday at home before another training camp with the team. He'll start his season in January at the Tour Down Under, where he intends to start breaking in his race legs while supporting the team and maybe doing some stage hunting.
"It's going to be a hard race, especially for me," he said. "I'll be there with a team that on one side is good for sprints, but on the other side is also really good for the GC. I will just see how it goes and try to use opportunities as they come up, otherwise really support the team and have a good start into the new year."