By Sophie Smith
German sprinter Marcel Kittel is in a position to take first blood at tomorrow's flat Tour de France opener buoyed with the knowledge he has beaten his marquee rivals more than once this season.
The 25-year-old attended yesterday's low-key team presentation in Porto-Vecchio without the cruiser he made a flashy entrance on 12 months ago in Liege. But he was armed with the two clear goals of winning a stage and finishing the 100th edition of the race.
Kittel got the better of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) to secure a second consecutive Scheldeprijs title in spring and got the better of the Manxman as well as compatriot Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) at this month's Ster ZLM Toer.
The unassuming fast-man has won 11 races so far this season including overall honours at the Tour de Picardie plus stage wins at the Tour of Oman and Paris-Nice to name a few.
However, he is not resting on past success ahead of the Grand Depart.
"We showed we that can beat them as a team and that I'm fast enough," Kittel said.
"Now we're here at the Tour, it's a new day on Saturday with a new chance and then we have to see how good we are again. Every day it's a new struggle to beat the other guys."
Kittel was named the most successful neo-professional - in terms of race wins - in 2011. He thought himself a time-trialist and won bronze at the 2010 under-23 time-trial world championships in Australia before his potential as a pure sprinter was truly realised.
Kittel made his Tour debut last season and was billed as a stage contender there. However, he was forced to make a premature exit before the fifth stage, floored with illness.
"I'm at least as strong as last year," he said. "But to be honest it's difficult to answer because last year in the Tour I actually only had one and a half opportunities - prologue and first stage - to see how good I am, and then I became sick. We have to see during the racing but I'm confident that I'm in good shape. I can feel it on the bike."
Kittel is set to share Tour leadership with Argos-Shimano teammate John Degenkolb, who will target punchier stages.
The second stage may be one for Giro and five-time Vuelta stage winner Degenkolb but the 24-year-old has already predicted day three will likely be too hard. Teammate Koen de Kort has suggested the latter may tailor to Slovak prodigy Peter Sagan (Cannondale) or a breakaway.
Cavendish has asserted his desire to win the first yellow jersey of the race with a stage victory tomorrow. There's been less talk of yellow at Argos-Shimano but that's not to stay it hasn't been mentioned.
It's possible a sprinter could prevail in Sunday's second stage from Bastia and keep the maillot jaune for another day. But it's not clear yet whether the team's pure sprinter Kittel, or Degenkolb, will lead there.
"Here [Corsica] I don't really know what to expect," de Kort said.
"I mean, the first day I suppose we can expect a bunchy, so we're going for a bunch sprint, and then we see after the second day and the third day.
"It all depends if two or three guys go away in the beginning and there is real control and real easy pace in the peloton, then everyone will survive," he continued.
"But I don't think a couple of other sprinters or a couple of other teams want that to happen so I'm quite sure it's going to be pretty tough."
Tour de France 2013: Related links
Tour de France 2013: Who will win?
Tour de France 2013: The Big Preview
Tour de France 2013: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
Tour de France 2013 team tracker
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