Can Marcel Kittel's sprint rivals come up with a plan to beat him in this year's Tour de France?
Never two without three, goes the French proverb. But looking at the way Marcel Kittel dominated stage three of the 2014 Tour in London, his second sprint win of the race, the saying might need some modification by Paris. Never two without five. Or even six. Seven? Probably not, but ask us again on the eve of the final stage.
The way Kittel is sprinting, it’s difficult to see how he’s going to get beaten. His biggest rival, Mark Cavendish, is out of the race nursing a separated shoulder after crashing on stage one. The second-placed rider today, Peter Sagan, could see the writing on the wall. He stayed in Kittel’s slipstream all the way to the line – no point in embarking on a fool’s errand to try and come past the German, and risk losing the green jersey points for second place. In fact, he wasn’t really even holding Kittel’s wheel – there was at least a bike length between them on the line. (It was Sagan’s third second place in three days, thus proving the proverb above.)
It’s not only Kittel who is on top form. His team has got the timing and technique of their lead-out perfect. Giant are less showy than the other major sprint teams, Omega Pharma and Lotto. Lotto were visible at the front from 25 kilometres to go to The Mall, while Omega Pharma, as they had in Harrogate, also committed early, at five kilometres out. Giant were more patient – they made their attack for the front at 3.5 kilometres to go, putting a line of four riders in front of Kittel, one of whom, John Degenkolb, put in a huge turn in the final two kilometres.
When Cavendish was dominating the sprints in similar fashion to Kittel, between 2008 and 2011, his HTC team used to lead from a long way out, an unbroken line of eight or nine riders at the head of the field. That tactic was effective first because they had the team to do it, but also because the other teams didn’t have the capacity or manpower to execute the kind of guerrilla tactics employed by Giant today.
The lead-out for one team was the lead-out for everybody – it started in earnest 10 kilometres from the finish, and it was dominated by a single team. Now, there are so many different lead-outs happening, at different times, it’s impossible to try to dominate from 10 kilometres out. Clever timing for the lead-out has become an important weapon in the sprints, perhaps the most important of all.
This is where Omega Pharma, for example, seem to have gone wrong. They have committed early in both sprints, while Giant have committed late, and won both.
Can Kittel be beaten? It’s unlikely, if teams keep trying the same tactic against him. If Omega Pharma and Lotto keep trying to dictate the pace in the final 10 kilometres, Giant will sit back, make their move inside four kilometres to go, and probably win again. It will be interesting to see how much work the other teams are prepared to do before the sprint in the flat stages to come. Admittedly, Giant are also being helped by GC teams like Astana and Tinkoff, who have been riding at the front at the end of the stages, to keep their leaders out of trouble.
There’s one other unanswered question: whether Andre Greipel has the speed to beat Kittel. The Lotto rider has been baulked close to the finish in both stages so far, and hasn’t had a chance to sprint against Kittel. With Cavendish out, Greipel is the only rider with the pedigree to beat his compatriot. If he gets a clear run tomorrow, we should have all the information we need to know what’s likely to happen in every subsequent sprint.
Marcel Kittel has contested seven Tour sprints since the Grand Depart of the 2013 race, and he’s won six of them. The only aberration was in Montpellier, on stage six last year. The winner that day: Andre Greipel. The winning tactic: a late attack by Lotto. The other teams have got to start varying their tactics in the sprints, and making Giant expose themselves earlier. Otherwise, Kittel is going to win a lot of stages.