Scheldeprijs, with its pan-flat course, has come to be known as the unofficial sprinters’ world championships. What better setting, then, for Marcel Kittel to provide confirmation that he is returning to the heights of his powers, and is ready to re-establish himself as the top sprinter in the world.
The German claimed an unprecedented fourth victory in the Belgian Classic on Wednesday, but it was not so much the record that pleased him – "I don’t race for history; that’s not what cycling is about" – as the names that appeared below his on the day’s results sheet.
Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel. Further down: Alexander Kristoff, Elia Viviani. Elsewhere: Niccolo Bonifazio, Wouter Wippert, Sam Bennett, Andrea Guardini.
He has beaten almost all of them individually at various points this season, but the significance of defeating them all in one fell swoop was not lost upon him and, as such, he described it as his biggest victory since his illness-ridden and form-deserted annus horribilis of 2015.
"All the big names were in that race – they lined up to go for the victory. To win against all the other guys, if you just look at the podium, that’s a really important win," said Kittel in his post-race press conference.
"There was such good competition, so many other good sprinters here. It makes it very special and I’m very proud of it."
Before today, Kittel had already won five times this year and done enough to convince most that the travails of 2015 had already consigned firmly to the past. If there were any lingering, hopeful thoughts in the minds of his rivals that he may not be the force he once was, they will have been disappointed to see him cross the line first, but even more despondent to hear that he did it in the wrong gear.
"I started my sprint and did a little mistake, sprinting in a gear which was firstly too big, so I had to shift up," explained Kittel, who narrowly edged out Cavendish but was well clear of the rest.
"Then when I started to accelerate I knew I was on a good way but I saw Cavendish coming and I tried to shift down again but it didn’t work. So suddenly my legs got really, really soft and I just tried to hold it as good as possible to the finish line."
A fearsome message to send out in a year in which there are in fact two sprinters’ world championships - the course for the actual Worlds in Qatar being seemingly amenable to a bunch gallop. Kittel has no doubt laid down an important marker here – not just to his day-to-day rivals but also in terms of the battle with Greipel for German leadership – though he was understandably reluctant to get ahead of himself at this stage.
"I hope we don’t have rain in Qatar…" he joked, referring to the conditions that persisted throughout this dress-rehearsal of sorts. "This is definitely a good test, but to talk now already about a race that is in half a year – I think it’s a bit early."
It’s still too early, as well, for Kittel to say that he’s back to the level that saw him emerge as a dominant force in bunch sprinting around 2013 and 2014. He still describes his relationship with his new teammates as "a process of developing into a new lead-out team", and he stressed the importance of this win – coming in only his third sprint with Maximiliano Richeze – in terms of that ongoing process.
The Tour de France this July will provide the setting where those questions can receive an true answer, but for now Kittel is racing with confidence and a smile on his face and, in the same way that he can’t have expected his 2015 to be so dire, he can’t have hoped for 2016 to be going much better.
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