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PARIS (AFP) — Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) being forced out of the Tour de France due to a lack of fitness likely has several sprinters and their teams quietly grinning with delight.
The last two years, Kittel has been in a class of his own at the Grand Boucle, winning four stages in each, including both the first and last on each occasion.
He also got to wear the coveted yellow jersey both years as a reward for his opening-stage victory.
His raw power allowed him to beat the opposition every time he arrived at a finish in contention, even overhauling a spirited challenge from Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) on the Champs-Élysées last year thanks to a simple advantage in pure speed.
But Kittel has been suffering from illness all year and his team decided he was not fit enough to ride the Tour.
Chief among the relieved parties will likely be Briton Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step), the sprinter usurped by the steam engine Kittel’s brand of raw power.
Cavendish won 25 Tour stages from 2008 to 2013 but crashed out of last year’s race on the very first stage.
But already in 2013, he won only two sprint stages in the Tour as Kittel had the edge on everyone.
Cavendish is widely seen as the greatest natural sprinter ever, but the trend toward fewer stages that favor the pure sprinters at the Tour and more rolling, hilly ones mean his green jersey hopes have been greatly reduced.
He did win the green jersey outright in 2011, but the last three years it has been the personal property of Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), a more all-round fast-man.
The Slovak did not win a single stage last year, but several close calls, whether the stage was flat or rolling, ensured he easily claimed the jersey.
Kristoff and Degenkolb
Sagan should have more competition this year from the likes of one-day classics specialists Kristoff and John Degenkolb (Giant), the respective winners of this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix.
Kristoff took too long to get going in the Tour’s green jersey competition last year but finished strong, winning two stages in the final week.
Degenkolb had a limited number of stages to go for as he played second fiddle to his teammate Kittel, but this time around the onus will be on him to be involved in as many sprints as possible.
Those three should dominate the battle for the green jersey, but when it comes down to the pure sprints, Cavendish is likely to have his chances.
He’s been in fine form this year, winning four stages at the Amgen Tour of California, three at the Tour of Turkey, and two at the Dubai Tour, while also winning the one-day semi-classic Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
But at June’s Tour de Suisse, Cavendish never managed to get himself in contention for a stage win, whereas Sagan won two stages and was second in two others. Kristoff earned one stage win and also registered a third-place finish.
Those Tour de Suisse stages were generally not the classic, flat stages that lend to bunch sprint finishes, so Cavendish need not worry too much entering the Tour.
There will be other sprinters in the mix, such as German veteran Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) or French pair Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and the in-form Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who won two Critérium du Dauphiné stages in June, although he crashed at the French national Championships on Sunday and may miss the Tour.
Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka) and Australians Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews (both Orica-GreenEdge) will have their eyes on a few stages suiting their capabilities.
But in the absence of Kittel, this really is the year for Cavendish to reassert his position as one of the sprinting greats.