German sprint king Marcel Kittel is set to defend his title at Scheldeprijs next Wednesday in what will mark a long-awaited return to competition following illness.
The Flanders classic holds pride of place for sprinters including three-time champion Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep), who surprisingly has not been named on a provisional start-list that includes Kittel, Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
Race organisers today confirmed Cavendish was not due to start.
“Cav is taking a couple of weeks off,” a spokesperson said.
Kittel has been a notable absence from competition for most of the early season and not raced since the Tour of Qatar in February after which Giant-Alpecin confirmed he was suffering from a virus.
“I don’t know exactly what virus it was, and to be honest I don’t think our doctor knew what it was, but it was with fever and a few days he was really sick,” said head coach Rudi Kemna.
“After the race he had a really bad feeling about his total body and power. We didn’t want him to come back too quick. It’s better to have a really good feeling again, also in training, and that looks good now.”
The eight-time Tour de France stage winner began training on schedule about two weeks ago.
“That will take his level up and it’s going well,” Kemna said. “It’s not perfect, that’s what I hear from the trainer, but he feels well.”
Kittel won Scheldeprijs, the rich 204km race from diamond capital Antwerp to Schoten, for a record third consecutive time last year joining Cavendish and Belgian Piet Oellibrandt as the only riders to claim as many editions, albeit not consecutively.
The 26-year-old started his season at the Tour Down Under in January, winning the prelude criterium, but did not figure in the official stages. He fell ill after the WorldTour opener and despite fighting on at Qatar was a late withdrawal from Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
He, Cavendish and Greipel are yet to face-off this season with illness and alternate race programmes denying cycling fans a chance to see the trio compete at the same race.
Kittel has been confirmed for the May 1-3 Tour de Yorkshire, the place he earned a career second maillot jaune last year winning the Tour de France Grand Depart in Harrogate before going on to claim line honours in stage three from Cambridge to London.
The UK and Ireland have proved to be fertile soil for the fast-man, who also powered to Giro d’Italia stage victories in Belfast and Dublin, respectively, and two stages of the Tour of Britain in 2014.