All sprinters have bad days. Whether they get dropped, get blocked, puncture or crash, every sprinter will be able to recall days where they just weren’t able to contest a sprint. But when you’re as good as Marcel Kittel – and he really is good – should you be worried about the number of days where things don’t quite go to plan?
This is a harsh view to take when you picture Kittel accelerating clear on the Champs Elysees to land his fourth Tour de France stage in 2013 – or the way he easily crushed the solid sprint field in Nijmegen at the 2016 Giro – but the German continues to be a risky man to throw your money at.
It pays to know your races with Marcel Kittel. Unstoppable in Dubai or at Scheldeprijs, Kittel’s never won at the Tour Down Under or on Italian roads, and can add just one win in four editions of Paris-Nice. We’re still not quite sure what happened in 2015 and after a cracking start to last season he was readily beaten by Mark Cavendish in July.
Kittel is the purest of sprinters and is not alone in being dropped on lumpier stages. However, in recent years he’s found ways of losing even the more straightforward sprints. He appeared to mess up at Stages 1 & 3 of last year’s Eneco Tour and was caught out by walls of slow rider traffic. The latter stage was one by Peter Sagan – a rider who never seems to go missing in the more technical or messy finales.
Likewise, Kittel should have been closer when 7th on Stage 5 of this year’s Paris-Nice and at Stage 3 of the Tour of California. You’d be right to call this a slightly pedantic fault-finding exercise but for a rider who can disappear from contention so easily, the bookies love making him a heavy favourite for an opening sprint stage.
We all know Kittel’s at his best when given a glorious lead out (I’m struggling to think of a victory where Kittel has surfed his rival’s wheels) but the competition is getting tougher and this year’s Tour de France startlist contains every realistic Grand Tour sprint winner save for Fernando Gaviria and Caleb Ewan.
His time at the recent Ster ZLM Tour tells you everything you need to know. He powered to second in a short prologue, failed to contest the two bumpy days and then won the final bunch sprint in impressive fashion.
Quick-Step’s rejuvenated Kittel seems to have added a mental toughness to his obvious power and is capable of bouncing back quickly from disappointment. He’ll certainly start the Tour as the favourite for Stage 2 but his leadout train will be shorter than some of his rivals.
Kittel was odds on when winning at the Dubai Tour but as short as 2/1 when faltering at Paris-Nice. There are plenty of stages that he could win at this year’s Tour but I’m expecting the flat finishes to be shared around; I’ll be surprised if Kittel gets more than three.
Will you be backing the big man?