Despite all the hype, Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel have rarely come head-to-head in recent seasons.
In fact, the last time the two featured in a race together, the 2015 Vattenfall Cyclassics, both Cavendish and Kittel finished in the underwhelming positions of 66th and 91st respectively, a far cry from the battle of the two sprint giants that ignited at the 2013 Tour de France.
Since 2013, though, both have suffered their fair share of struggles. For Cav, 2014 will be marked by that crash on the Tour’s opening stage in Yorkshire as the German ran riot, while Kittel fought with form, illness and fitness throughout 2015.
But for the new season the pair have grasped new opportunities with both hands. Kittel now commands the formidable Etixx-Quick Step sprint train, having parted from the Giant-Alpecin team he’d enjoyed so much success with. Cavendish, who wasn’t going to be afforded the track racing opportunities he craved at Etixx, leads the new look line-up at Dimension Data.
André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) strode confidently into the role of cycling’s most dominant sprinter in 2015, but will these fresh starts for both Kittel and Cavendish reignite a sprint duel that surely every cycling fan would love to see again?
Wednesday’s opener at the Dubai Tour gave us a hint that that could be the case. Kittel, still only 27, looked as powerful and as commanding as ever as he held his sprint ahead of those behind him.
Watch: Marcel Kittel talks about his 2016 season
Cavendish, who will attempt to split his time between the track and the road this year in search of Olympic gold, began his sprint further back but looked streets ahead of the likes of Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) despite not being able to overcome Kittel.
Both tread different paths in this early season; Cavendish heads to Qatar before looking for a second Milan-San Remo title, as Kittel heads to the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice in preparation for the Giro d’Italia.
“If I wanted to get shit small wins, I’d race shit small races,” goes the famous Cavendish quote, as he (having taken only one WorldTour victory out of his 13 wins last year) and Kittel look to make a bigger impact on cycling’s top level races, with the Tour de France likely to be their most telling battleground.
Cavendish, now 30, has never beaten Kittel in an out-and-out sprint at the Tour (Kittel had been dropped beforehand in Cav’s victories of 2013), making it the most intriguing rivalry between any of the sprinters.
The Tour though, will not be the only objective on both their minds. For the first time since 2011, when Cav became only the second British male road race world champion in Copenhagen, the pan-flat 2016 Worlds course in Qatar looks to be ideal for a pure sprinter (should the crosswinds not wreak too much havoc).
How Cavendish emerges from the Tour and the track campaign at the Olympics will be telling. The likes of Kittel and Greipel will have only the road to focus on, building specifically from the Tour towards the Worlds.
But it’s that dogged determination to prove everyone wrong that is Cavendish’s most defining quality. The Tour, the Olympics, the Worlds is no mean feat, particularly with an on-form Kittel to take on.
A showdown in Doha though would be a fitting climax to what, we hope, will be an exciting close fought season between the two sprinting giants.