It seemed churlish to quibble with Marcel Kittel’s imposing victory in London on stage 3 of the Tour de France, but then that’s how it’s always been for the best sprinters. As soon as they start to dominate, we complain that they have no real competition.
Kittel assumed the mantle of the fastest sprinter in the Tour peloton twelve months ago, but the man who abdicated that crown, Mark Cavendish, had arrived at this year’s race determined to seize it back.
The Manxman over-stretched himself – and over-stepped acceptable limits of risk – on the opening stage in Harrogate, however, and the injuries sustained in his crash in the finishing sprint brought his Tour to a premature end.
After claiming victory and the first maillot jaune of the Tour on Saturday, it seemed almost an inevitability that Kittel would double up on the wide, open expanses of the Mall in Cavendish’s absence on stage 3, and so it proved.
Piloted by a typically well-drilled Giant-Shimano team, Kittel sprinted from the front and saw off the challenge of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Cavendish’s erstwhile lead-out man Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) to claim a dominant win.
“There is still plenty of competition: this is the Tour de France,” Kittel said afterwards. “There is also Peter Sagan. This was a perfect sprint finish for me today but maybe another stage might be different with an uphill finish. I always have to take care.”
Indeed, it could even be argued that Cavendish’s absence might begin to play against Kittel as the race progresses. Omega Pharma-QuickStep is a natural ally of circumstance for Giant-Shimano when it comes to pegging back breaks, and Cavendish would never flinch at the prospect of going head to head with the German in a sprint finish.
“The fact that Mark Cavendish isn’t in the race changes some things for us as a sprinter’s team,” Kittel said. “Maybe there won’t be as many teams who want to work for a sprint as before, and we have to take that into account for our planning.”
If ever there was finishing sprint tailor-made for Kittel, it was the grandstand finale on the Mall. The long, wide and slightly downhill boulevard suited a man with the ability to sprint from distance and Kittel produced what he reckoned to be among his fastest ever sprints to fend off Sagan and take the win.
“I think the stage today was a real stage for sprinters. It was really hard and the finish was just made for it,” he said. “The sprint in front of Buckingham Palace was awesome. We had a straight, wide road, downhill – perfect for me.”
Kittel claimed two wins from his first two sprints in Belfast and Dublin at the Giro d’Italia in May only to abandon the race through illness before turning a pedal on Italian roads. He shyly laughed off the prospect of not reporting for duty when the Tour returns from Britain to France for stage 4 on Tuesday.
“I hope that I won’t get sick again,” he said. “Of course, that can happen but I’ll take more care and hope I will be right.”
A report in the Spanish press on Monday morning floated the idea that Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso was planning to purchase the WorldTour licence of Giant-Shimano or Belkin in a bid to enter the professional peloton in some capacity in 2015. Kittel said that he was unaware of the rumour and pointed out that his team’s existence was already guaranteed for next season even if Giant could not find a replacement title sponsor.
“It’s the first time that I heard this so I cannot say a lot about it,” Kittel said. “There have been a lot of stories about Alonso and cycling but [general manager] Iwan Spekenbrink told us that we would continue as a team together even without a sponsor. That’s all I have to know as a cyclist and I’m happy that my future is secure.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.