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Marcel Kittel was an unstoppable force in the bunch sprints in 2013, powering to 16 wins on the season, including a breakout four stage victories in the Tour de France.
So what’s next for the German sprint ace? To do it all again, of course.
“It’s already a very good performance to win stages at the Tour. The next step is to confirm, to win again against the benchmark sprinters in the bunch,” Argos team manager Iwan Spekenbrink told VeloNews. “To confirm again those victories is a nice goal.”
The 6-foot-2 German surprised many with his stellar Tour performance in July.
Not only did Kittel (Argos-Shimano) take it to top sprinters Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), but he also made it over the Alps to win the season’s most prestigious sprint on the Champs-Élysées.
That final victory put an exclamation point on a tremendous Tour performance that included a spell in yellow and catapulted Kittel into the elite of the sprinter’s ranks.
There was mounting pressure on Kittel to deliver in this year’s Tour, especially following his early abandon in his 2012 debut. Already one of the best young sprinters in the bunch, with a confidence-boosting stage win in the 2011 Vuelta a España, Kittel pulled out in the first week a year ago with a bad stomach. He still needed to win at the Tour to demonstrate his worth.
With four stage victories in July, Kittel proved to everyone he deserves to be ranked alongside Cavendish and Greipel as the top finishers in the peloton right now.
For 2014, Argos will return with a singular focus of riding for Kittel in all the major sprints, be it in stage races or in one-day races on favorable terrain.
“It’s not easy to beat Cavendish and Greipel. He’s done it before, but to do it this year at the Tour, when everyone was in their best condition, that was a big step,” Spekenbrink continued. “Right now, focusing on the sprints is the best task. Those two guys are still the favorites. It’s a nice challenge for Marcel.”
Reloading the Argos sprint train
Doing it all again is easier said than done.
Cavendish and Greipel have already confirmed their status as top sprinters, and each has an experienced and well-drilled sprint train to back him up.
Both of those riders have also learned what it’s like to win big races, and then come back the following season to do it again.
A sprinter is only as good as his last sprint, so repeating the feat is just as hard as winning the first time — perhaps even harder with the attention of the peloton and fans.
Argos, too, has an ever-improving train, and the team did a great job protecting Kittel and then guiding him through the chaos of the sprint finales to be in position to win this summer. Final leadout man Tom Veelers was superb piloting Kittel in the frenetic final meters before unleashing the sprint.
“We’ve already done a lot of work on the train even before this season. When Marcel came to the team in 2011, we were already building a sprint train,” Spekenbrink explained. “We work on the rotations and the positions. Everyone knows their role on the team. When it’s a flat stage, everyone rides for Marcel.”
Before the 2013 Tour, the team headed to the Circuit Zandvoort racetrack to train specifically for the high-speed sprint finishes at the race. That work paid off, but the team will have to continue these efforts if it hopes to match Kittel’s race-best haul.
Focusing on the sprints
With the arrival of a new title sponsor for 2014, the team’s future is assured through 2016. Spekenbrink already has Kittel and fellow German sprinter John Degenkolb locked up for three more years. Veelers will be back, too, assuring Kittel the same support as he pedals into 2014.
For the short term, Argos is remaining focused on the sprints, expanding into the classics, and hunting for stages. There’s no talk of signing a big-time GC rider to carry team colors in the grand tours.
“We prefer to keep doing what we do well, and to develop young riders,” said Spekenbrink. “We have some young riders who could some day grow into GC contenders. A rider like Warren [Barguil], he’s already done very good, winning two stages at the Vuelta a España this year. But he’s not ready to race for the podium in a grand tour. And we do not want to just sign some big rider. We want to build up our own riders, and that takes time.”
That means that the central focus in 2014 will remain on the sprints.
Room for Kittel and Degenkolb
Spekenbrink downplayed a potential conflict between Kittel and compatriot sprinter Degenkolb.
The Germans have been ripping up the sprints over the past few seasons, helping a resurgence of cycling in scandal-torn Germany. In fact, Degenkolb has won more grand tour stages than Kittel, with five Vuelta stages in the 2012 edition, and a stage in the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
With some close calls, a stage win at the Tour for Degenkolb seems only a matter of time, particularly with more sprints in the tours edging toward the uphill variety. With a different makeup, there appears no reason Degenkolb can’t achieve that milestone alongside Kittel at Argos.
“Degenkolb is not a pure sprinter like Kittel, but he is very good on harder stages, when they are climbs or an uphill finish,” Spekenbrink said. “They complement each other very well. John did great work for Marcel during the Tour. John was the rider who would tow Marcel into position going into the final kilometer. He is a team player. He will have his chances on stages that are not good for Kittel.”
The team has its bases covered, with Kittel designated as team leader in the flatter, more traditional bunch finales, and Degenkolb waiting in the wings when there’s a punchy, uphill finish.
That relationship means Degenkolb is the team’s man for the classics in the next few years.
In 2013, the 25-year-old Degenkolb won Paris-Tours and the Vattenfall Cyclassics, and punched in with ninth at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), proving he has the legs to go the distance in the longer, one-day classics.
Kittel’s brawny build also suggests that he could do very well in one-day races, especially the bumpy cobblestones classics. He’s already a two-time defending champion at Scheldeprijs, but Argos is avoiding the trap of focusing its top sprinter on the one-day races so popular in northern Europe.
When it comes to Kittel, the team is going to maintain the focus on sprinting. There’s no talk of taking on the northern classics, at least not yet.
“It’s too early to talk about developing for the classics for Marcel,” Spekenbrink said. “Right now, let’s keeping on working on the solid value of a sprinter. He can still improve. Let’s do that first. Maybe later we can look to the classics, it’s just too early to say.”
Interestingly enough, Kittel came into the sport as a time trial specialist. After some promising TT results in the under-23 ranks, many thought he would emerge as cycling’s next great man against the clock.
Argos put Kittel through physiological testing, however, and discovered he could post huge power numbers in short bursts, and then hold them to the line — ideal for a sprinter.
Perhaps his trajectory from TT specialist to the sprinting elite explains Kittel’s laidback personality. He didn’t flinch when a German reporter asked him to undergo a lie detector over the summer to determine if he was clean.
Most sprinters are brutal, highly competitive, sometimes wacky personalities. In contrast, Kittel oozes a calm mentality that sometimes drives his coaches crazy. They want him to get a harder edge.
“Marcel is not egocentric. He is a social guy and he appreciates everyone on the team. We do not want to change that, but sometimes he is even too friendly,” Spekenbrink said. “Even when the team makes mistakes, he will say, ‘thanks, I know you did your best.’ But to be a leader, sometimes you must also say that one must do it better. He is not always that hard.”
As Kittel’s confidence grows, so should his palmares, or at least that’s what Argos brass is hoping for.
“He can keep developing as a sprinter. When he came to us, he did not have that much experience as a pure sprinter,” Spekenbrink said. ” As he gains experience and gets all these hard races under him, he will become stronger and stronger.
“He had to fight and fight to get through the Alps, but that allowed him to win in Paris. He will take the next steps, and first we will do what we do best right now, so let’s try to reconfirm that for now.”
More wins at the Tour de France will go a long way toward that goal of confirmation.