Mark Cavendish vs Marcel Kittel: sprinters in top form as Tour de France draws nearer
Rivals flying in preparation for Harrogate yellow jersey battle
by Colin Henrys
German fast man Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) is, according to Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), the next big thing in sprinting.
According to Kittel, former world road race champion Cavendish, is - alongside Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) - the world's best.
And the two sprinting rivals are in scintillating form as the Tour de France Grand Depart draws ever closer, where both will do battle for the yellow jersey on stage one.
Kittel won the maillot jaune last year, denying the Manx Missile one of few jerseys he was yet to get his hands on.
But the British champion has home advantage this time out, with stage one concluding in Harrogate - his mother's hometown.
So what can we expect when the two fastest men go head-to-head in July? We have compared the two over the following pages.
The stats, they say, never lie so it seems as good a place as any to start by comparing the results since January of Cavendish and Kittel.
So far this season, the two have thirteen sprint victories between them, with the British champion having racked up one more than his German rival.
Of those victories, the most prestigious belong to Kittel, who has won both road stages of the season’s first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia.
Though Cavendish and Greipel are absent, Kittel has still had to beat the likes of Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr), Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and the in-form Ben Swift (Team Sky).
It also gives Kittel the edge in terms of WorldTour wins, with Cavendish boasting just the final road stage of Tirreno-Adriatico at pro cycling’s top level to his name this season.
Instead, the Manx Missile has racked up five wins at 2.HC level – four in the Tour of Turkey and his one in the Tour of California – and one at the 2.1-classified Volta ao Algarve.
Kittel, on the other hand, won all three road stages in Dubai, ranked 2.1 by the UCI and has a record-equalling third victory at Scheldeprijs to complete his collection. He also won the People’s Choice Classic, a non-UCI city centre criterium ahead of the Tour Down Under.
Both have suffered their disappointments, too, with Kittel failing to record a single victory at the Tour Down Under or at Tirreno-Adriatico, while Cavendish missed out in Dubai and suffered illness at Tirreno-Adriatico before coming back strongly to win the penultimate stage.
Though they have competed in the same race on two occassions this season, the eagerly anticipated sprinting battle between the pair has failed to materialise.
At the Dubai Tour, Kittel was in the better shape – his team-mates setting him up for a superb stage two win while Omega Pharma-Quickstep struggled, while Cavendish was not in contention on the following two stages either.
At Tirreno-Adriatico, meanwhile, a crash denied Kittel on the first road stage – his angry bike toss captured on camera – when Cavendish finished 17th.
On the penultimate stage of the race, it was Cannondale who accounted for Kittel’s chances – their furious pace in the bunch causing the German and his team-mate to lose contact at the back.
By comparison, Omega Pharma-Quickstep and a resurgent Cavendish stayed comfortably in the bunch before bursting into the life in stunning fashion in the final kilometre.
[part title="Best performances"]
It is hard not to be impressed by the two fast men whenever they sprint to victory.
The vision they have in the chaos in the sprint, the gaps they can find, the timing of their attacks – it is sprinting at its very best.
It is not just in the final 200 metres or so where they come to life either, contrary to some critics’ belief – with some of their wins coming courtesy of some phenomenally strong rides.
Kittel, on the one ‘hilly’ stage of an otherwise pan-flat Dubai Tour, stayed in touch with the likes of Rui Costa as they looked to open the race on the moderate climbs towards the end of the stage.
And when the finish line approached, he burst from the bunch to storm to a phenomenal victory, devoid of his lead-out train.
On the other hand, stage three of the Giro d’Italia saw him win in style with a huge sprinting effort from way back to overcome a deficit of almost four bike lengths on Ben Swift - a bid for victory he described later as an attack, rather than a sprint.
The effort it took was visible to all, and required him to dig very deep into his sprinting armoury, joking afterwards of the effect it had on his legs.
For Cavendish, meanwhile, his win in Tirreno-Adriatico was the epitome of a sprint train clicking into gear perfectly.
Individually, his most recent success saw him at his very best to deny Kittel’s team-mate John Degenkolb.
With Alessandro Petacchi at the Giro, and Mark Renshaw puncturing, Cav had to go it alone without his two main lead-out men, and from a long way back too.
But he picked the line perfectly and, having left it not a moment too late to attack, won by the narrowest of margins.
An obvious strength for both, of course, is the way they read the sprint. Speed alone, of which they both have plenty, will only take you so far.
Indeed, Cavendish admitted himself after his final success in Turkey – having been outdone by Elia Viviani (Cannondale) the day before – that his best attribute is his 'jump'.
At lower speeds, Cavendish’s acceleration is simply unparalleled and he has won from way back on occasions as a result too – see last year’s Tour of Britain, for example, or his astonishing victory on stage 18 of the 2012 Tour de France.
With Kittel, it is his resilience – on both stages of the Giro so far he has appeared second best at times in the final sprint.
But he keeps on pressing, picks the wheels to follow, and finds the right lines with unnerving regularity. And when he is forced to go it alone, as was the case on the third stage of the Giro, he has the willpower to succeed.
Nevertheless, when the winds pick up he still appears to remain vulnerable – suffering at the Tour Down Under for example, and again at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Cavendish, by contrast, can read echelons like the best of them – indeed, he was part of the leading group which briefly formed in California on stage one.
It’s like falling through ice, he has said in the past – you get one chance to get it right, and that one chance seems to be all Cavendish requires.
[part title="Lead-out train"]
Mark Cavendish knows a good lead-out train when he sees one – he used to profit from the services of one of the best there has ever been while at HTC.
And the men tasked with leading him to success this season are slowly forming a team to rival that one.
Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi are two of the best in the business, and the manner of the team’s success at Tirreno-Adriatico prove they are cooking on gas at the moment.
Cavendish lavished them with praise in Turkey too, where textbook lead-out followed textbook lead-out.
Petacchi’s speed on stage eight allowed Cavendish to sit in and wait to attack until near the very end, while stage four – victory number three for Cavendish – came after the team had led for the entirety of the final kilometre.
“They were phenomenal," Cavendish said post-stage. “The leadout was just another example of the perfect job by the guys.
“Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw were super-fast and they delivered me in the best position to launch the sprint."
For Kittel on the other hand, his own sprint train is slowly starting to bear fruit as the likes of John Degenkolb – himself no mean sprinter – and Tom Veelers continue to click.
Luka Mezgec is in the team at the Giro too, and as all gain more experience it is no exaggeration to say they could be the next big thing.
Kittel was proud, he said, to have been alongside some of his lead-out for all of his Grand Tour success to date.
And on their current form, you would fancy there to be plenty more to come.